Looking for a Fight, On the Web

In an earlier post, I outlined how the mainstream media turned healthcare reform and the climate summit this into a fight – stripping it of nuance and sensationalizing every aspect of the conversations. This resulted in:

  • Less real clarity or understanding about the bill or about the economic and environmental issues at the heart of climate change;
  • Less trust in our political system; and
  • Less engagement from people for whom these issues impact on a daily basis.

The social web is often held up as an alternative to mainstream media, one that is breaking the old systems and building new modes of producing and consuming the news. So I thought it worthwhile to explore how this issue – the incessant fight narrative – plays out on Twitter and Facebook.

It’s definitely different, but unfortunately Twitter and Facebook – much as I see their enormous potential for new ways of telling stories and understanding the world around us – replicate many of the same issues I pointed out earlier. On TV, when the stories we tell are modeled after wars and sporting events it leads to mediocre TV personalities filling time with junk news. Most segments are a minute long, tops. They are televised tweets with flashy b-roll.

As the debates over climate change and healthcare ramped up, I often wished I could just hide any status update tagged with #COP15 or #HCR.  As friends and acquaintances, journalists and pundits, sent minute-by-minute updates of everything they saw, read, and heard, these big issues were broken down more and more. In the end, this sort of real-time reporting felt more like gossip than journalism. So many of these updates were rehashed sound bites, well honed spin or snarky responses to “the other side.”

More recently, I found out about the Shirley Sherrod story about a day later than the rest of the world, and came upon the story through Twitter. However, in the 140 character chatter filling my stream I could not piece together what had actually happened. I couldn’t even find out “Sherrod’s” first name for a while. Twitter was full of rich debate and discussion but it was tailored for people who had been following the story.

I was hungry for someone to synthesize everything, to curate the tweets, to confirm or deny the rumors and discuss their significance. I was hungry for context. There are people and places beginning to undertake that kind of role. One example is this post by Jessica Clark, in which she compiles the best tweets from the Federal Trade Commission’s Future of Journalism two-day workshop with an overview and analysis of what was said at the event. I was one of those people sending off rapid fire tweets that day, and I found it incredibly valuable to be able to review what was said and what was tweeted later on.

Unlike cable news, Twitter or Facebook offer the ability for two-way conversation, for dialogue and debate. The few times I tweeted back and forth, or chatted on Facebook with someone on the ground in Copenhagen, I was able to use those interactions to help get a clearer picture, ask some probing questions, grapple with tough issues. Yet, those were rare moments in a see of updates.

In general, watching these events unfold via the social web did present a much wider set of voices and viewpoints than was ever explored in the mainstream media. However, rather than constructing the debate as a fight between two perspectives or stakeholders as the mainstream media had done, Twitter and Facebook presented it as a cacophony of voices. Just as it is hard for individuals to often see themselves and their perspectives represented in the limited scope of mainstream media, it is often hard to see one’s self in the flood of text encompassed on Twitter.

That said, as with the curating and synthesizing of tweets mentioned above, Twitter provides another benefit as a source of news that mainstream media does not. Text – even on the web – has a lifespan that is longer than cable TV. Mainstream media, especially cable and broadcast news, in temporary and transitory. Once a story is over it’s difficult to ever see it again. Even with online streams, many channels are not archiving their footage in effective or thorough ways.

Text is more permanent. After an event, using tags a reader can go back and pull all the tweets from a given event or debate. This allows – at least after the fact – to slow down, study, and investigate what was said and revealed in the minute to minute updates. It allows us to get a fuller picture, to synthesize the data, to let it inform other work. On Twitter this is useful to a point, as Twitter doesn’t make older tweets searchable or available longer than a week or so.

There are some encouraging practices emerging that try to use these new tools for in-depth news that draws on a diverse set of voices and attempts to discuss these pressing issues in a more full and nuanced way. But I think it is safe to say that there is still a long way to go, and a lot more room for innovation.

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