In defense of Twitter’s role as a social media watchdog

Mike Rosenwald is concerned that overzealous critics will make Twitter boring.

twitter is ruining

Rosenwald, who has distinguished himself in articles and excellent enterprise reporting at the Washington Post, appears to have strayed into a well-trodden cul de sac of social media criticism.

Writing in the Post, he quotes from series of sources and highlights a couple of Twitter users to arrive at a grand thesis: online mobs taking tweets out of context could chill speech. Rosenwald’s point was amplified by Politico chief economic correspondent Ben White, whose tweet is embedded below:

When I went to grab the embed code for the tweet above, however, I found something curious: I couldn’t generate it. Why? After I strongly but politely challenged White’s point twice on Twitter, he’d blocked me.

Here’s what I said: I am disappointed that the democratization of publishing and speech continues to be resented by the press. Celebrities, media and politicians will be criticized online by the public for inaccuracy and bias. It’s not 1950 anymore. And for that, a journalist blocked me.

Irony aside, I wish White hadn’t taken the nuclear option. I’m no absolutist: when George Packer slammed Twitter 3 years ago, I suggested that he take another look at what was happening there:

Twitter, like so many other things, is what you make of it. Some might go to a cocktail party and talk about fashion, who kissed whom, where the next hot bar is or any number of other superficial topics. Others might hone in on politics, news, technology, media, art, philosophy or any of the other subjects that the New Yorker covers. If you search and listen, it’s not hard to find others sharing news and opinion that’s relevant to your own interests.

Using intelligent filters for information, it’s quite easy to subscribe and digest them at leisure. And it’s as easy as unfollowing someone to winnow out “babble” or a steady stream of mundanity. The impression that one is forced to listen to pabulum, as if obligated to sit through a dreary dinner party or interminable plane ride next to a boring boor, is far from the reality of the actual experience of Twitter or elsewhere.

Packer clearly read my post but didn’t link or reply to it.

Given his public persona, I suspect Rosenwald will be much more open to criticism than Packer or White have proven to be, although I see he hasn’t waded into the vitriolic comments on his story at the Washington Post, which slam Twitter or the article — or both. Here’s what I’ve seen other journalists and Twitter users tweet about the piece:

For my part, I tend to lean towards more speech, not less. Twitter has given millions of people a voice around the world, including the capacity to scrutinize the tweets of members of the media for inaccuracy, bias or ignorance.

That’s not to say that a networked public can’t turn to an online mob and engage in online vigilantism, but the causality that Politico chief White House correspondent Mike Allen trumpeted regarding Twitter use in yesterday’s Playbook was painful to read on Saturday morning.

Twitter makes people online vigilantes? Come on. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and other social media platforms have taken nearly all of the friction out of commenting on public affairs but it’s up to people to decide what to do with them.

As we’ve seen during natural disasters and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, including protests in Turkey this weekend, an increasingly networked public is now acting as reporters and sensors wherever and whenever they are connected, creating an ad hoc system of accountability for governments and filling the gaps where mainstream media outlets are censored or fear to tread.

That emergence still strikes me as positive, on balance, and while I acknowledge the point that White and the sources that Rosenwald quotes make about the potential for self-censorship, I vastly prefer the communications systems of today to the one-to-many broadcasts from last century. If you feel differently, comments — and Twitter — are open.

7 Comments

Filed under article, blogging, journalism, microsharing, research, social media, technology, Twitter

7 responses to “In defense of Twitter’s role as a social media watchdog

  1. Pingback: Free Speech Has Consequences & Counter-Speech Is a Vital Part of Deliberative Democracy

  2. What many call policing, I call questioning. Social media have given us a great forum to instantly connect with and comment on many of the journalists and celebrities we follow. Any public person with or without a social media presence should expect to receive criticism or comments about their work. The problem is the Internet allows us to be as anonymous as we desire and enables people to fire off comments that aren’t helpful. I won’t bother replying to someone who calls me an idiot or accuses me of some imaginary bias. However, if someone questions or criticizes my work, I feel I have an obligation to reply. Why? I need to be able to defend my work because if I can’t back it up, I lose credibility. And every public person should know it’s impossible to please everyone, so they need to either grow a thick skin or consider doing something else that keeps them out of the limelight. Finally, social media won’t lose their spontaneity because followers challenge what’s being broadcast. And Twitter won’t get “boring” because of the so-called Twitter police – it will get BETTER, by increasing transparency and accountability. And that to me will always be a positive.

  3. Pingback: Have The ‘Twitter Police’ Gone Too Far? – Forbes | Social Media Street

  4. To tweet or not to tweet? The timorous Rosenwald protest too much. Now watch as it’s petals are picked away by the razzing darts of truth.

  5. There is no such thing as the Twitter police. End of story.

  6. Pingback: The perils of context collapse | Perry Hewitt

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