In a crisis, Twitter morphs into cable news

December 19, 2012

Twitter calls itself a “real-time information network that connects you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions and news about what you find interesting.” That network is defined by its personalization: The person who assembles her feed is the person who reads it. This is usually a benefit. Last Friday it became a distraction.

My unfiltered Twitter feed was basically unusable as an information source — a repetition of facts shared space with anger, and grief, and commentary, and still more of the same facts. Instead, I relied on filters, and the individual streams of people who are extremely talented at culling what’s important and cutting out the repetition.

Those who load Twitter feeds with news organizations, journalists, and news junkies encounter a – how else to put it but in Twitterspeak? – #firstworldproblem. Jay Rosen, from New York University’s school of journalism has described it well: “7 out of 10 posts in my incoming Twitter feed are about the same story.” And when that kind of critical mass is reached, no matter if they’re trivial (Felix Baumgartner’s space jump), national (presidential election night) or tragic (last week), these moments have a particular rhythm.

Broadly speaking, it goes like so:

1      New facts are reported and quickly repeated.

2      Reactions are added.

3      Commentary is layered on.

4      Those original facts are amended, corrected, or invalidated.

5      Forcefully folksy explainers and lists of “The [Insert Number Here] Facts You Need to Know” are published.

6      Conventional wisdom is formed so that it can be…

7      Ideologically challenged, wonkishly debunked, and expertly analyzed.

8      Infographics appear.

9      The medium is truly, fully saturated.

In the midst of last weekend’s Newtown coverage, I saw President Barack Obama’s Newtown speech described by his biographer David Maraniss as “his Gettysburg address” at least a dozen times before I started visually tuning it out. That tweet has been retweeted 511 times since Sunday. Similarly, I will never forget that the Rolling Stones are, on average, older than the present U.S. Supreme Court justices, a factoid that propagated relentlessly last month.

Twitter, in essence, has developed its own news cycle. That’s a traditional characteristic for a medium that aspires to be innovative and proclaims to be disruptive. Instead, for power users, it’s replicating deeply unhelpful patterns. At moments of acute information and emotional overload, Twitter’s most intense news cycles don’t feel like a conversation between actual people thinking in real time. Instead, Twitter feels more like something that is supposed to be passé: cable news.

On cable, there’s always breaking news. Two- and three-minute packets of information are repeated until they can be replaced with something new. Reactions about what something might mean are offered, or absent those, opinions about how something might feel. The anchor in the studio and the citizen on the street are equally likely to provide the content, since there’s a lack of actual news.

TV broadcast tropes have been adopted on Twitter. Tweets repeat until the story advances, headlines are reacted to emotionally, and eyewitness accounts bubble to the surface even if they don’t have much to offer. The heart of what Twitter promises is interaction that goes beyond projection. But at the moments when a single story cranks up to Rosen’s 70 percent red line, what is valuable becomes what hasn’t yet been widely shared. As a news medium, judgment is Twitter’s distinguishing feature.

Cable news provided a vehicle to broadcast already existing types of reporting. At its best, Twitter does the same, aggregating a thoughtful mix of insights and information from diverse sources. Twitter doesn’t need to be as crowded as it is. Unlike TV, which has to fill airtime, social media-delivered updates don’t need a fixed quantity. Twitter has the aggregation technology to bundle content for users, but the service inexplicably has decided that the best way to deploy it is in a weekly “Here’s What’s Happening on Twitter” email that always feels stale. Why not integrate this into the real-time user experience? That, unlike the repetitions, would add actual value.

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