Jim Ruttenberg is upset because Twitter isn’t policing itself like radio and TV did. Hatred spewed by “venomous” pseudonymous accounts–the new “white hoods”–is simply not rooted out and purged as it should be. (Disclosure: Education Realist is not, in fact, my name.)
I’ve been around the online world, although not as Ed, for close to twenty years, which is a middling time. Usenet is forty years old, older than the the Web itself, older than the domain naming system, and the Great Renaming that created the notion of “alt” is thirty. And for nearly that long, we’ve all known that the news groups and every other online communication form invented has been used to promote racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and all the other bad isms. I don’t think Rutenberg wants us to believe that any of these opinions are new, although he doesn’t say so in that many words.
I wonder if Rutenberg has discussed this with Chris Cillizza, who has written two different articles celebrating the death of blog comments, explaining that comments aren’t nearly as good as the superior, “self-policing” nature of Twitter.
I think it was Alex Russo who observed that Twitter has done a lot to kill comments sections. For the commenters, Twitter offers a much bigger audience, freeing them from the blog’s limited readership. For the media organizations who abandon comments, the single biggest reason isn’t the aggravation from blowhards, but the cost. Comment curating is expensive, and leaves them open to free speech and consistency complaints. Advertisers don’t value comments pages, or their views. So comments cost a lot in employees and bandwidth and don’t offer much.Twitter’s larger audience drives views and saturation –and it doesn’t cost the publishers a cent.
Journalists and other figures came to Twitter long before the their corporate owners did. They willingly cast off the protections offered them by a media website without realizing the tradeoff. They can refuse to read their email. They can refuse to engage with the comments section. They can ignore all the the angry blog posts linking to their work. Twitter doesn’t give them that option, and their publishers can’t protect them.
But they want Twitter. They want to compare follower stats and watch their popularity grow. They want the “viral” attention of a popular article.They want the increased visibility. They want the rapid communication with their colleagues and experts. They even want the feedback of the many intelligent and committed readers. They want it all for free, the audiences that can rapidly join up and participate without the overhead of websites, domain names, and curation. They want to show their real selves to their loyal fans whilst still pretending to be unbiased in their “real” journalism.
They also want to look in on the little people to produce some of that “real” journalism or to further reinforce their professional status. Hey, I’ll just grab some “regular people” tweets for my article. Let’s see what the hashtag for the newest terrorist attack has in the way of color commentary. Or hey, look at this racist tweet–I’ll just tweet it out to my followers for shaming. Here’s a moron I can mock. Maybe it will go viral and I’ll look influential. Or look, here’s a bathos-drenched Twitter conversation amongst rape victims that I can rewrite with little effort for lots of clicks, and I don’t need their consent.
Journalists and other elites routinely cull Twitter for content, whether to keep their followers happy, to fuel their causes, or to do something they think of as reporting or analysis. Yeah, they want Twitter.
They just want Twitter without any risk of being called out, mocked, and abused, because calling out, mocking, and abusing people has been the media’s job for generations. It’s not supposed to go the other way.
When journalists left the confines of the media domain protection and set out onto the open range, they became the news, just like the little people. Because on Twitter, no one is little, or everyone is. Blue check or no.
Rutenberg calls Twitter a “new media development”. But Twitter is a communications medium, not a publishing empire. It’s the connective fiber, not the content. Twitter “publishers” don’t exist in a centralized form. Or, as one academic puts it, Twitter enables ambient journalism, in which the public doesn’t just receive the news and analysis selected by the gatekeepers, but participates in “digitally networked” information generation in which news generation goes in multiple directions.
The problem isn’t Twitter. There aren’t any sentiments on Twitter that haven’t lived online since online existed, and before that lived in print. But in a networked digital world, the journalists can’t filter. Journalists aren’t wilting flowers. They’re used to criticism. But just as Twitter makes reporting on “the people” easier, so too does it make the people’s response a lot easier to deliver.
Jim Rutenberg calls for a “robust discussion” about Twitter’s danger to national discourse, even though he’s clearly aware that the platform has been around for a decade. He’s been a member for half that time. Little late, Jim.
I am not excusing the Pepes, the gas chambers, the tweeted threats. Nor am I drawing any equivalencies between media mockery of their chosen targets and the *isms we can’t filter out now. My advice to journalists and other opinion folks: stop calling for purges. Stop castigating anonymity, as if ordinary people have nothing to fear from your prying eyes. Stop pretending that rudeness and nastiness actually dangerous. Stop demonstrating, once again, that you think you’re more important than the rest of us.
Stop feeling sorry for yourselves. Stay safe within the confines of your publisher’s website if you don’t want the abuse, and pay the price of a lower profile and a smaller audience. Twitter is your choice. But it’s not your property.
(Hey. Less than 1000. Sorry for breaking up my ELL series. But this has been on my mind for a while.)