Monday, October 1, 2012

Twitter shmitter

Today’s Dominion Post has an article (not available online, as far as I can see) by New Zealand pollster Stephen Mills, of UMR Research, who is in the US observing the presidential campaign. His theme is that Twitter has usurped American bloggers in  terms of political impact and significance. He quotes someone called Garance Franke-Ruta (is he sure that's not a made-up name?) from the Atlantic as saying the "conversation" has moved off the blogs on to Twitter, "especially for political insiders".
Problem is, the article doesn't really bear that out. Sure, it cites some superficially impressive numbers: in 2008 the two major party conventions generated 360,000 tweets; this year the figure was nearly 14 million. Mitt Romney's speech peaked at 14,000 tweets a minute, we were breathlessly informed. Michelle Obama's speech doubled that figure and Barack Obama nearly doubled it again, to 54,000. 
Holy habadashery, Batman, there's obviously something deeply significant going on here. But is there?
Mills' piece tends to confirm my suspicion that Twitter proselytes are transfixed by numbers and speed. It's all about being first with a piece of information, regardless of its value.   But elections are still determined by voters, not Twitter users. And even though the US reportedly has 140 million Twitter users (many of them not active), most people have lives to get on with. I can't imagine that more than an infinitesimally small minority feverishly pounce on every fresh morsel from the candidates' speeches.
Political "insiders" can excitedly tweet to their hearts' content, but are they just babbling among themselves? How much of their digital chatter penetrates beyond their own self-absorbed realm to the masses who will choose the next president?
How many people are interested enough to absorb all this information? Years ago, someone came up with a clever analogy to describe the impossibility of keeping up with the flow of information online. They said it was like trying to drink from a firehose. If it was impossible then, how futile must it be now?
Mills quotes someone named Adam Sharp as suggesting Twitter is ushering in an exhilarating new era when people can be "directly engaged in the political process on a one-to-one basis again". But he would say that, because he's a highly paid Twitter executive. Mills' article certainly doesn't bear out his extravagant claim.
More and faster doesn't equate with better, least of all when you're considering politics. Quite apart from anything else, how much intelligent analysis can be packed into 140 characters?
Thankfully Mills allows himself some scepticism, but only towards the end of his piece. "There is certainly a risk," he writes, "that Twitter will lead to ever faster-moving but even more shallow politics." Quite so. He quotes expatriate New Zealander Hamish McKenzie, a reporter for tech blog Pandodaily, as saying that as stories emerge faster and burn out faster, full consideration of their importance is lost. Sam Weston, another Kiwi who works for digital company Huge, says work and thought go into most blogs, whereas Twitter is instant and easy.
It's encouraging to see that not everyone working in digital media has been sucked in by the noisy evangelists overselling its benefits.

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