Happy Birthday Twitter?

Posted by Professor Bob Franklin

Twitter logo
Twitter claims more than 200 million active users, with 400 million tweets posted daily

The Guardian’s front page story on Tuesday 12th April carried a lengthy and disturbing article about how women are increasingly ‘targeted online with racial abuse, pornography and death threats.’ One woman, ‘having made 126 crime reports to the British Police and numerous reports to Twitter and Facebook’ declared that she felt ‘destroyed and defeated’. 

The problem of digital stalkers, internet harassment and people who open multiple or fake social media accounts to make abusive threats is a problem which neither the police nor Twitter seem able to resolve. Worse, the Guardian reports that the Police fear such cases of online abuse threaten to ‘overwhelm them’ (Guardian 12 April 2016, p1).

In this case Twitter, the microblogging platform for disseminating and sharing news, information, gossip, entertainment or any whimsical thought (no matter how drunken), seems to have been the focus of the news rather than its more usual role as the digital platform reporting the story.

But Twitter has its enthusiastic supporters as well as its justified critics. Substantial claims are (appropriately) made for the democratizing potential and effects of Twitter given the more fulsome capacity for public debate which the platform offers; Twitter empowers people by giving them a voice in significant policy debates. Network theorist Manuel Castells makes even stronger claims suggesting that social media and networked global communication structures are preconditions for the growth of social movements of liberation like the ‘Arab Spring’; he musters powerful, if slightly romantic, language to dub them networks of ‘outrage and hope’.

Moving on from these rather grand manichaeistic expressions of support and critique to focus on our own particular parish pump, Twitter has undoubtedly been significant for those of us interested in the study of journalism. The emergence of Twitter – launched in March 2006 and recently celebrating its 10th birthday – has triggered significant developments in all aspects of the gathering, reporting and reception of news. Most significantly, social media have posed problematic existential challenges to the identity of ‘journalists’ and the very meaning of ‘journalism’, as digital media enable users to become participants in a more pluralistic process of news making by posting comments below articles in online newspapers, but also by ‘breaking’ news on social media like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram; whether by photographic image or text.

Blurring boundaries

In these ways, Twitter is increasingly ‘blurring boundaries’ between ‘professional’ and ‘citizen’ or ‘participatory’ journalists and giving rise to ‘interlopers’ in the world of journalism professionalism. Events like the London Riots in 2012, the Paris bombings and shootings in 2015 and the recent attacks at Brussels airport, illustrate the particular significance of Twitter, as a source of news and a platform on which to report news, for both professional and citizen journalists; surely a cause for celebration? A further consequence of Twitter is especially significant in the context of such dramatic and newsworthy events and illustrates its impact on the reach and pace at which news travels.  Alan Rusbridger, ex-Editor of the Guardian observed that, since the arrival of Twitter and other social media, the average scoop now has a massively reduced shelf life of less than three seconds!

But Twitter also poses significant potential challenges for the future of a sustainable, critical and high ‘quality’ democratic Journalism. The transparency and credibility of news on Twitter, the range and reliability of sources used in its production, as well as the work experience and professional values of its citizen journalists, differ markedly from news produced by traditional news organisations with their tested news production protocols and professionally experienced staffs. News breaks fast but the suggestion is sometimes that the sacrificed accuracy and credibility may be too high a price to pay for such immediacy: transparency so the argument runs is not an adequate substitute for journalists’ previous commitment to objectivity.

All this reminds of American journalist and Editor A. J. Liebling’s observation that, “I can write better than anybody who can write faster and faster than anybody who can write better!” Moreover, the requirement to deliver news in 140 character ‘sound bites’ requires a capacity for tabloid compression which would test the skills of even the most professional hack and certainly over reaches the skills and experience of the relatively novitiate participatory journalists.

Popular with professional journalists

But despite these problems, Twitter’s popularity has proved explosive. It claims more than 200 million active users, with 400 million tweets posted daily. Twitter, moreover, is increasingly popular with professional journalists whose uses of Twitter for newsgathering and reporting have become a ‘normalized’ aspect of their daily work routines, although the extent and regularity with which journalists use Twitter and other social media, in their private and professional lives, varies substantially reflecting their age, gender and their professional experience and attitudes.

These changes in everyday journalism – developments in digital technologies, the emergence of social media such as Twitter, shifts in journalists’ professional practice and journalists’ relationships with sources and audiences for news have, in turn, triggered changes in digital journalism studies, in which Twitter has become a major focus for scholarly research and publication.

Academic and research agendas

This growing prominence for Twitter and social media more generally in academic and research agendas, has not been confined to particular case studies of ‘Tweeting the news’, no matter how significant these particular studies might be (See for example Farida Vis’ study of the role of Twitter in reporting the London Riots Digital Journalism 1(1)), but has extended to studies exploring and developing the methodological and research design implications of Twitter and the use of new data mining software to explore Twitter content.

Malik and Pfeffer’s recent study of Twitter and news, for example, involved the automated content analysis of an unprecedented and rather mind boggling 1.8 billion tweets (Digital Journalism Feb 2016). The sheer scale of the collection and analysis of data necessary to inform scholarly studies of microblogging, offer exciting prospects for digital journalism studies.

Given Twitter’s many enthusiastic supporters and critics, should we wish Twitter a happy tenth birthday? That, of course, is for you to decide. But whatever your choice, it is certainly a Birthday with considerable significance for the profession of journalism and the academic field of journalism studies.

To mark Twitter’s 10th anniversary, Professor Bob Franklin has released these eight free articles from Digital Journalism and Journalism Studies – exploring the relationship between journalists and social media. They are available until the end of April 2016.

The Journalism Studies Resource Centre
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