Frisbee on the beach

February 15, 2012

Much A’Tweet About Nothing: Why I Don’t Get My News From Twitter

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Old-Fashioned Newspaper Lover; photo by AlejandroLinaresGarcia via Wikimedia Commons…

The other day I’m killing time on Twitter – which I call “Fritter” because of how well it serves that purpose – when a trending topic caught me eye. I usually ignore Twitter trends, which consist primarily of vapid paeans to Justin Bieber, false celebrity death announcements, and such pressing topics as #YouNeedToBreakUpIf.

Yes, those really are trends on the world’s most overrated social network. What, you were expecting news about Arab Spring and other democratic revolutions? Dude, that was so 2011. The Twitterati have moved on. Get with it.

The trend that caught my eye? Simply “L.A. County.” OMG, I thought, are we finally slipping into the sea? Is Godzilla stomping his way from Malibu to Long Beach? Did the Chinese buy up our backyards to use as landfill?

No: it was some erroneous report that L.A. County would fine you $1000 if you throw a football or Frisbee on one of its beaches. Of course, most reasonable people would suspect that something so preposterous was likely distorted, and they would then seek out the truth. But this is Twitter, where reason and truth are scarce natural resources.

We don’t need no stinkin’ Q&A…

Instead of probing questions and answers, we get outrage — which sums up American culture in the 21st century. The ignorami came out in full force, tossing around terms like “Communists!” and “Socialists!” to demonstrate the vast failing of our public education system. The conspiracy theorists, who flock to Twitter like ecstasy dealers to a rave, called it a money grab by politicians, even though a hell of lot of Frisbees would have to be impounded to fill the county’s $220 million hole. And then we had turbo-moron Rush Limbaugh crying “tyranny!” – once again flaunting his mad skill of accelerating from zero to buffoonery in just seconds.

Yes, Congress recently authorized an act that allows people in the U.S. to be arrested and held by the military without trial “until the end of hostilities” (i.e. forever) if they’re simply suspected of being terrorists. But that passed with hardly any notice. Instead, the Twitter lynch mobs raised their #torches and #pitchforks over footballs and Frisbees. Nice to see that we have our civil liberty priorities in order.

I ultimately learned what the beach bawl was all about by reading (get this) a newspaper. Ha ha. Yes, I consulted sheets of dead-tree matter containing stories researched by educated journalists and screened by professional editors. What a crazy concept. And sure the results weren’t Twitter instantaneous – good reporting usually takes time – but the L.A. Times came through.

Printing-drum roll please…

And apparently, the law in question was passed… 40 years ago. It was originally written to prevent large games from breaking out on crowded beaches, thus endangering sunbathers. And the reason the law had been raised anew in 2012 was because the L.A. County Board of Supervisors wanted to loosen it – that’s right, the damn leftists were loosening the law – for the cold weather months when the beaches are barren.

No big deal, but again, we’re talking Twitter. And as Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities, said in the L.A. Times, “One of the negative sides of social media and the digital age is anything that’s shocking or entertaining has its viral appeal.”

Yes, our friends Shock & Awe, now appearing at a social network near you.

I understand why newspapers are losing subscribers. It’s impossible to compete with free, even if the replacement is a vastly inferior product. My deep fear is that real journalists will go the way of blacksmiths and alchemists. ‘Cause if bloated gossip mills like Twitter become our society’s primary source of news, the future will be no day at the beach.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

11 Responses

  1. Freddy – saw your presentation at the Sherman Oaks Chamber yesterday. Excellent, by the way.

    Twitter, like any form of media, can certainly have lousy content. So it’s important to blame the message, not the messenger.

    Twitter, when used thoughtfully and strategically, can be a vehicle for thought amplification. What the heck do I mean by that? Well, what might have been a little-noticed letter to the editor in the “dead-tree” news era now has the potential to shape a conversation.

    With the right content (be they hard facts or compelling opinions), a tweet directed at the right journalist or public official might not just spur discussion. It may in fact change the debate, be it about Frisbees or farm payments.

    Previously cloistered members of the media or elected officials now have direct engagement with the public (and increased accountability) due to Twitter. I’d make the argument that such an open dialogue makes democracy stronger.

    And on FrisbeeGate itself? Largely because of social media including posts made via Twitter, County officials were compelled to explain the otherwise confusing law and delineate exactly what it meant for beachgoers.

    So yes, Twitter might not always have the Arab Spring, but it very well might have made a more enjoyable summer…

    • Hi David:

      Thanks for your comment!

      Call me an elitist Luddite (quite an awful combo, I confess), but I prefer the old fashioned method of sending letters to the editor, and having a professional journalist sort out the issue, rather than having mob rule dictate the national conversation. I fear that we’ve become a nation where civil discourse is being manipulated by media-savvy demagogues (Limbaugh, et al). While demagogues always held sway in America (McCarthy), there used to be some filters.

      Twitter, by design, caters to an unfiltered mob mentality, and tends to become banal quickly, rather than leading to elevated discourse.

      Now I’m not asking for a clampdown on Twitter; rather, I’m just explaining why I don’t have much respect for it, and will grip my dead-wood newspaper until they pry it from my cold, dead fingers. :)

      Freddy

  2. As a reader of newspapers, I appreciate this. And, ironically, I have retweeted it. ;~)

  3. Good article Freddy. Disseminating information via soundbites and tweets removes even a slight possibility of nuance and context. Even many of the best information outlets seem to care less about context today than in the past. I suspect that in the struggle to compete, there isn’t enough time for them to bother.

    Glad to see other people are noticing. We must have missed the memo stating that curiosity, the pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking are relics of an elitist past.

  4. I agree with David: social media allows the masses to get a public voice and be heard. But it also allows individuals to tap into knowledge they were never able to acquire before.

    In my opinion, it’s the Internet as the magnifier of opinions and voices creating networks that can make us smarter or stupider depending on our capability to build smart networked rooms.
    As David Weinberger says in “Too big to know” (2011:xiii): “(…) we are in a crisis of knowledge at the same time that we are in an epochal exaltation of knowledge…Knowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication (…) The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it. It’s not that the network is becoming a conscious super-brain. Rather, knowledge is becoming inextricable from (…) the network that enables it (…) Networked knowledge is less certain but more human. Less settled but more transparent. Less reliable but more inclusive. Less consistent but far richer. It feels more natural because the old ideas of knowledge were never realistic, although it’s taken the networking of our culture to get us to admit this.”

    Twitter is a chance to get your knowledge and expertise out to the world and to people you otherwise might not be able to reach. That way, you might contribute to raising the intellectual bar a little bit and counter steering “the shock & awe” you mentioned above.

    • Thanks for the long, thoughtful comment, Gergina. Note that I’m not opposed to Twitter – I tweet regularly. I’m just saying I’d much rather get my news from trained journalists than from a high-tech gossip mill, just as I’d rather get medical advice from a doctor than from strangers at a coffee shop open-mic night. Also, I’m not the one I’m worried about; I’m concerned about the people who can’t distinguish truth from fabrication, insight from innuendo, and whose “networked rooms” consist of demagogues and posers. So consider this blog post my contribution to raising the intellectual bar. Unfortunately, I see people on Twitter right now would rather talk about “Dancing with the Stars” and #GetOutOfMyFace.

  5. People who can’t distinguish truth from fabrication tend to do so not only on Twitter but wherever they get their information from on the Internet. So again, what the masses talk about wasn’t to be seen before the Internet and social media. Now, it is. That’s the big difference to the good old times where the media told the world what to talk about.

    • Gergina:

      I’m afraid your line of reasoning is starting to elude me. Why do you have a problem with my preferring professional journalists to gossipmongers?

      Also, when did the media ever tell people what to talk about? We’re not talking about Red China here.

      In the West, gossip has been around forever, even during the height of broadcast journalism. The difference now is that – on Twitter – people are calling gossip “news.” Gossip is being granted a legitimacy it never had before. Twitter is NOT citizen journalism. Why celebrate the fact that people are relying on a gossip mill for news instead of professional sources?

      Freddy

      • You can of course put it that way. Only because I’m participating in a discussion in this blog doesn’t mean I have a problem with anything :-) It’s enriching to get to know the experts’ view on the subject. The way to truth and knowledge is through reasonable and open encounters among those who disagree.

        I follow many professional journalists on Twitter, so I prefer professional journalists to gossipmongers, too :-)

        As long as we haven’t conducted a respresentative study of people’s behavior toward gossip a.k.a. news on Twitter, we can’t be really sure that we can generalize your assertion. Just a little input from the scientific point of view of the matter. If it really were that way, there would be nothing to celebrate.

        As far as media “telling people what to talk about” I rather meant “media influence & effects” which has been of interest to research in media and mass communication studies.

        • Aren’t Twitter trends supposed to provide that representative study? :)

          Seriously, according to Mashable (http://mashable.com/2011/12/06/top-twitter-trends-2011/) the top 10 Twitter trends for 2011 were…

          1. Justin Bieber
          2. Soccer/Football
          3. Lady Gaga
          4. NBA
          5. Jonas Brothers
          6. Christmas
          7. Super Junior (Korean pop band)
          8. Britney Spears
          9. Japan Earthquake
          10. One Direction (British pop band)

          Out of ten topics, only one real news item. Like most popular media driven by the general public, Twitter tends to pander to the lowest common denominator. So while the professional journalists we follow on Twitter are credible (as to be expected), the Twittersphere inevitably devolves into the banal and the sensationalistic. That’s what happens in gossip mills. No wonder a small report on beach restrictions in L.A. County was easily manipulated by Rush Limbaugh and other demagogues. I give everything on Twitter a critical eye, and I hope more people start doing so. It’s a fun place to chit-chat; it’s not the new fourth pillar of democracy.

  6. That’s the big difference to the good old times where the media told the world what to talk about.

    LOOOOOOOOL

    No.

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