How many times have I heard this week that Twitter has changed the world? That Twitter has re-defined the media? That Twitter is providing the world with real-time information about important events?
Statements like these are symptoms of infatuation: Seeing what you want to see, ignoring flaws, and creating a fantasy that isn’t actually there.
I think Twitter is kinda neat, but this week proved how feeble it can be as an information source. While many hyped this week as Twitter’s ‘moment’, I think it was the opposite. It was the beginning of the end of the honeymoon. Anyone who went on Twitter for the first time to see what the hype was about would have been very confused and disappointed, at best.
Hype: Everyone heard about Michael Jackson dying first on Twitter. No, actually everyone on Twitter heard that Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jeff Goldblum died. That’s right. Jeff Goldblum died. He fell to his death during a film shoot. Many thousands of Twitterers ‘re-tweeted’ this important news to their ‘followers’. This would be newsworthy I suppose, except that Goldblum had not died (nor fallen). So you can’t really say that the news of the deaths spread quickly on Twitter. You can say that the rumours spread fast on Twitter, but the only way to confirm if any of the rumours were actually ‘news’, was to to go to CNN. Good ol’ centralised corporate media.
Hype: Neda’s death caught on videophone proves that media belongs to the people now. The fact that a non reporter took the video, rather than a journalist, isn’t really a new phenomenon. It’s not uncommon for average citizens to document news as it’s happening and provide that content to mainstream media. Media outlets can’t be everywhere, and even if all the major networks had reporters all over Iran, they wouldn’t have been at that exact location the moment Neda was shot. In 1970, John Filo took the famous picture of a 14 year old girl crying over the body of Jefffrey Miller who had just been shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State University. Filo wasn’t a professional, and wasn’t working for a network. He was a photography student who happened to be there. This was 19 years before the World Wide Web, and 36 years before Twitter. Of course Iran is a different situation. Without a strong independent media, the ‘net plays an important role in distributing information and videos like this. But that has little to do with Twitter. People have been able to publish and share their own photos and videos online for many years, and on many platforms (remember the photos coming out of Gaza last year? That wasn’t Twitter folks).
Hype: Twitter is the best place to find out what’s happening in Iran. What? Twitter was the most useless way to find out anything. Sure, the networks were awfully slow at reporting what was happening, and much of the early information was coming through online citizens’ reports, but the volume on Twitter was so overwhelming it was impossible to follow or comprehend. When I checked Twitter for news I found a tidal wave of tweets, hundreds per minute, using the tag “@iranelection”. I couldn’t possibly read even a small fraction of them. Most of the messages weren’t coming from Iran at all (which makes sense, since I’m searching Twitter in English), so I had to wade through endless tweets from thousands of chattering Americans to find anything actually relevant. And when I did find something, there was no way of knowing if it was true or not. I saw saw hundreds of tweets announcing that army helicopters were dropping acid on protesters. Most of the tweets about the acid helicopters were very angry. “THEY’RE DROPPING ACID ON PROTESTERS!!” The thing is, I haven’t seen any news (other than tweets – see below) that mentions acid or helicopters. So either this is the biggest media cover-up of the decade, or Twitter has proven itself to be quite ineffective as a news source.
Hype: Iranians could only communicate with Twitter! This is the part that confuses me the most. I’ve heard over and over that the government in Iran shut down all communication networks and no one could talk to each other, or send news out – except using Twitter. How is this possible? As far as I understand Twitter (and I’m not a techie, so maybe I’m missing something here), there are two main ways to send tweets: through a web-based browser or application, or using txt messaging from a cell phone. Now, if you can tweet through a browser, that means you’re online, no? And if you can send a txt to Twitter, that means that your cellphone is working and you can send txt messages to anyone else (your friends, family, your Facebook status, etc). I just don’t understand how people could have used Twitter in a way that was inaccessible to all other forms of communication. If someone could explain this, I’d be happy to hear about it.
Don’t get me wrong. I thing twitter is cool and has some interesting applications (more on that next week). But for news? For updates on a crisis? I don’t think so.
Twitter (and Facebook, and YouTube, etc) provide an important platform for expression. They allow us all to share information, and spread it quickly. We’re better off with these tools. But I don’t think Twitter has really changed the game as much as the hype proclaims. Before Twitter existed, I was already able to find independent DIY news from all over the world via E-mail, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, etc.
When I want to catch up on the news I definitely won’t turn to Twitter. There’s just too much noise. I’d rather wait an hour, let the journalists check their facts, and then read about it on the BBC.
Important updates on Twitter this week from Iran:
@TomStone: I heard that flesh burning acid was dumped onto a crowd from a helicopter in #Tehran
@Persia4all: A kind of chemical(acid) has been poured from helicopter on the crowd.World should find out what kind of killers Islamic regime consists of.
@Aislinnye24: RT from Iran: They throwing acid on people from helicopter not water , tell all please now this is chemical war with mullahs
@dbschell: I guess volume two of the Koran says to dump acid on protesters from a helicopter.
@SimplyDishing: Urgent: RT If you don’t know if helicopter dropped alkali or acid, do not use soap. Clean with cold water for 30-45 min. #iranelection #gr88
@AlixandraLove: from#iran There is Chemical war going on in Iran where is UN They want to Blind student BY acid from Helicopter Where is the world
@mountaingirl08: There was a helicopter seen hovering over the crowd dropping some sort of liguid. Acid was mentioned or boiling H2O.
@Quaalude714: Moussavi Facebook page says he’s prepared for ‘martyrdom’ http://www.cnn.com/2009/WOR… helicopter drop acid on people
@Yuifan16: @IronGardinia The helicopter flyers dropping acid on people should perish! #iranelection
@Gaard: Flicked on the tube for about 5 mins. @CNN is reporting 19 deaths. The #acid #helicopter story isn’t being covered. If it is a story.. #iran
@dayfornight: Dumping acid on peaceful protesters from a helicopter? I’m sorry, but that’s just a punk move. #iranelection