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Journalism's Death by a Thousand Tweets

Perhaps journalists don’t in fact like using Twitter any more than the average person, and their heavy use of the platform is simply a reflection of professional pressure coupled with its highly addictive nature.

· 12 min read
Journalism's Death by a Thousand Tweets

Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the Internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for—directly or indirectly—by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get… well, what we get. And it’s getting worse.
~Evan Williams, co-founder and former CEO of Twitter

Imagine you want to create a digital platform that will both destroy—or, at the very least, seriously enfeeble—the journalism profession, and simultaneously make you a vast amount of money. How should you do it?

Well, first you should ensure that the primary goal of your platform has absolutely nothing to do with the stated goals of the journalism profession. More specifically, the aim of your platform should not be to hold the powerful to account or, more broadly, to report on stories that are in the public interest. Rather, the platform’s main objective should ideally be the opposite of this: It should be to service the aims of powerful and private interests. The most obvious way to do this—whilst simultaneously making a lot of money—would be to sell millions and millions (and millions) of dollars’ worth of advertisements on behalf of these interests.

Then you should try to get as many journalists to use your platform as much as possible. (After all, what better way to destroy journalism than to get the vast majority of journalists to compulsively use a platform the aims of which are antithetical to those of their own profession?) The most straightforward way to do this would be to design a digital platform that is highly addictive (or, to use a less medically-loaded and industry-friendly term, “habit-forming”). To ensure that this platform is sufficiently habit-forming, it should conform to what author Nir Eyal has called the “hooking model,” to which every other major digital platform, consciously or unconsciously, scrupulously adheres. In particular, this platform should encourage or even require some kind of investment by its users (in the form of, for instance, content creation or profile curation). This habit-forming quality will have the further, collateral benefit of encouraging non-journalists to use it too—this is a very good thing, as it will allow you to sell targeted ads to them as well, and (hence) allow you to make even more money than you otherwise would. More importantly, it should feature variable rewards as one of the defining characteristics of its users’ platform experience (in the form of, say, a “newsfeed”).

Perhaps the most necessary feature, however, is also the most subtle: This new platform should offer a veneer of journalistic utility. More specifically, it should allow articles, videos, and opinions to be shared between journalists and non-journalists; it should facilitate the uptake and spread of “breaking news”; and it should be able to claim, with at least some initial plausibility, that it permits or even encourages a “conversation” to occur among its users on “newsworthy” subject matters. If, however, the platform is to remain strictly at odds with the aims of the journalism profession, every conceivable step must be taken to mitigate the possibility of genuine conversation or meaningful, journalistically relevant user interaction taking place.

In particular—and to give some possible examples—users should only be exposed to opinions, articles, and facts to which they want to be exposed; the rapid dissemination of “breaking news” should be encouraged, ideally without the requirement (or even the possibility) of context, fact-checking, assessment of genuine newsworthiness, or indeed any kind of editorial curation whatsoever; conversations should be fully surveilled, sometimes censored, and encouraged to take place in full view of everyone, thus limiting the possibility of the private exploration of alternative, non-mainstream viewpoints; empathy, sympathy, and face-to-face engagement should be actively discouraged, if not rendered impossible by the platform’s design interface, while hatred, tribalism, and outrage should be fostered and encouraged (this will have the added benefit of maximising user engagement, thus allowing you to sell your users even more ads); and, perhaps most importantly, the “conversations” themselves should be severely circumscribed, so as to prevent the possibility of genuine nuance and deep reflection taking place (by, for example, limiting the number of characters you’re allowed to type). Such a veneer will allow you to rebut accusations that your platform is perniciously habit-forming and seriously deleterious to the health of the individual, the journalism profession, and wider society.

As the reader will undoubtedly already have guessed, such a platform—or at least something very close to it—already exists: It is called Twitter. Publicly launched in July 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams, Twitter is now an astronomically profitable, multibillion-dollar multinational corporation. Described in its Wikipedia entry as a “microblogging and social networking service,” Twitter is in fact an advertising company—a truth revealed not only by the fact that a whopping 86.5 percent of the company’s revenue last year came from advertising (the rest came from data licensing and other sources), but also by the fact that the advertising industry itself openly admits this (“Is Twitter the best online advertising platform? Sometimes!”). (By contrast, the New York Times collects 64.3 percent of its total revenue through subscriptions, not ads.) At present, the platform comprises some 330 million monthly active users spread across 178 different countries, who in total send out a remarkable half-a-billion tweets every day. This includes some 64.2 million US users—or roughly one-in-five Americans—71 percent of whom use the platform to consume or share news.

While Twitter’s global impact and reach is undoubtedly enormous, its impact on the journalism profession has been seismic. At present, almost a quarter (24.6 percent) of Twitter’s authenticated users are journalists or news organisations; journalists are also the platform’s most active users by profession (as measured by follower ratios and number of tweets). More than a quarter (27 percent) of journalists turn to Twitter as their first source of news, and 83 percent regard it as their most valuable social media platform. A staggering 96 percent of journalists use the platform on a weekly basis, and 90 percent claim that they wish to maintain or increase their engagement with Twitter in the near future. Indeed, such has been the outsized influence of journalists on the platform that they were singled out for special mention and thanks in a series of tweets by the company’s billionaire CEO, Jack Dorsey, on Twitter’s ninth birthday:

Of course, Twitter wasn’t designed to destroy journalism. In fact, it’s not exactly clear what it was originally designed to do, or even, for that matter, what it is supposed to do (besides turn enormous profits by selling targeted ads to its users). Originally designed as an SMS-based platform—hence the original 140-character limit, since increased to 280 characters—with the mundane (and arguably inane) purpose of allowing “groups of friends [to] keep tabs on what each other were doing based on their status updates,” the very word “twitter,” according to a 2009 Los Angeles Times blog interview with Dorsey, was chosen as the name of the platform because of its then-dictionary dual definition as (i) “a short burst of inconsequential information” and (ii) “chirps from birds”—which, according to Dorsey, was “exactly what the product was.”

Journalism Is Not Activism
The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Dorsey, however, is a man prone to defining the nature and purpose of his platform in numerous, not obviously consistent ways. For instance, in the second part of the LA Times interview, Dorsey responds to the question “How do you think of Twitter? Is it a service, a medium, a piece of software, what?” with this:

I feel that it’s something new. I think it’s a new way to communicate. It has a new take on the address book. It’s a new way to interact with people. And at the same time, it does a very good job of exposing what’s happening in the world right now: You can see what’s… trending globally, you can limit that locally and figure out what’s trending within a five-mile radius of you, or you can use it socially and figure out what’s trending within your own social network. That’s where the newness is. I just haven’t seen anything like that before.
When I think of Twitter, I think of—it’s really hard to define because we’re still coming up with the vocabulary—but I think it’s defined a new behavior that’s very different than what we’ve seen before. So yeah: new medium.

These days, however, the platform’s goals are much more succinctly described, and significantly more lofty. Now, Dorsey claims (repeatedly) that “our purpose is to serve the public conversation,” a phrase that has been echoed by co-founder Biz Stone and others, as well as by the company’s own blog (sometimes with a “healthy” qualifier thrown in for good measure). Moreover, this emphasis on the importance of “conversation,” and Twitter’s role as a facilitator of it, is also commonly employed by journalists who defend the extensive use of the platform by members of their own profession. Indeed, Twitter’s own website explicitly encourages journalists to “join the conversation” (as well as enjoining them, among other things, to simply “have fun!”).

But the claim that Twitter “serves” or even facilitates “conversation” is, to put it politely, exceedingly difficult to support. Plainly this stated objective is secondary to Twitter’s primary goal as a business, which is to make money by selling targeted ads to its users on behalf of its major corporate clients (as well as to obtain better data on its users to more efficiently target them with ads). In the first quarter of this year, Twitter’s main advertising clients by number of impressions were, in order, the well-known corporate conversationalists Nestlé, Verizon, Disney, The Kraft Heinz Company, Unilever, Kellogg Company, GlaxoSmithKline, The, Comcast Corporation, and CVS. Even as a secondary goal, Twitter cannot coherently be said to “foster conversation.” The word “conversation” is commonly understood to mean face-to-face, open-ended, uncensored, private, empathetic discussions that, ideally, take place in a medium or environment conducive to the goals of exploring ideas and attaining mutual understanding. On the contrary, Twitter’s “conversations” are faceless, screen-mediated, often censored, surveilled, circumscribed, and take place in an addictive (okay, habit-inducing) medium, the raison d’être of which is to get participants to consume commercial goods on behalf of that medium’s multinational corporate clients.

Other reasons adduced for using Twitter are similarly vacuous. The journalist Jeff Jarvis has made the astonishing claim that refusing to use Twitter (or other social platforms like Facebook) is a reflection of one’s (journalistic) privilege and harmful to historically disenfranchised communities. To illustrate this dubious point, Jarvis offers the following example:

If you are an African American who is shopping or barbecuing or eating lunch or going into your own home when a white person calls the police on you, you do not have a newsroom of journalists who look like you who will tell your story because they, too, have lived it. The outlet you have is a hashtag on Twitter. These stories are now, finally, making it into mainstream media only because #livingwhileblack exists as a tool for those forever unrepresented and unserved by mass media. When journalists delete, dismiss, or disengage from Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Instagram or Reddit or blogs, they turn their backs on people who finally—like the journalists—have a printing press to call their own.

Leaving aside the salient question of whether this kind of “journalism” is actually as valuable as Jarvis maintains, his argument is—to be blunt—bullshit for at least three additional reasons. First, it assumes that, without Twitter, African Americans (and other historically disenfranchised groups) would have no outlets to express their grievances in a free society. (How, if at all, does Jarvis think African Americans were able—often successfully—to express their grievances prior to Twitter’s miraculous creation in 2006?) Second, it suggests that, by virtue of the fact that members of such disenfranchised groups are able to post on a particular social platform, the platform therefore belongs to them (“a printing press to call their own”), rather than to the people to whom the platform actually belongs, namely, the platform’s actual (largely corporate) shareholders. Third, the implications of Jarvis’s argument are absurd: Are we to understand that a journalist who exposes, say, racism in the US prison and judicial system but who is not on Twitter has “turned his back” on African Americans, but a journalist who writes clickbait articles about ephemera and uses Twitter has not?

In the same piece, Jarvis responds to a much-discussed New York Times op-ed by Farhad Manjoo which argues, persuasively, that “Twitter is ruining American journalism.” Jarvis writes:

No, journalists are responsible for the state of American journalism. They have no one to blame but themselves when they jump on a story too soon with unconfirmed information and rash conclusions, when they insist on joining in with their own needless and repetitive hot takes, when they match snark for snark. When I’m a jerk on Twitter it’s because I’m being a jerk, not because Twitter made me one.

This is, of course, a variation on the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument, and it is as intellectually and morally craven. Twitter is not designed to help or in any way benefit the journalism profession, it is instead a platform primarily contrived to obtain data from and sell ads to its users on behalf of its corporate clients; serious analysis and discussion are rendered impossible by the platform’s design and arbitrary circumscriptions; billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of work-hours by some of the world’s most intelligent people are spent designing such an interface and optimising it for these corporate incentives; and all of this is, according to Jarvis, entirely irrelevant. Twitter, its employees, and its corporate clients: none of them are to blame. Only you are.

What is encouraging, however, is that a growing number of journalists are becoming sceptical—even overtly hostile—to the role Twitter plays in the journalism profession. In addition to the New York Times’s Manjoo, these include CNN’s Brian Stelter (“Sometimes the insanity on Twitter makes my brain hurt… But I almost never think about leaving. Until now”); Slate’s Ashley Feinberg (“Twitter is obviously a nightmare. For journalism and everything else, really”); the New Yorker’s George Packer (“Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop… Twitter is crack for media addicts”); the Week’s Damon Linker (“The single best thing for both politics and journalism would be for Twitter to go out of business tomorrow”); and the Washington Post’s David Von Drehle (“Twitter is the crystal meth of newsrooms—a drug that insinuates itself into our vulnerabilities only to leave us toothless and disgraced”).

These journalists tend to mention some of the more conspicuous—and undoubtedly serious—problems often associated with Twitter: the anger, the hostility, the tribalism, the addictiveness, the associated shortening of attention spans, the unrelenting vacuousness and overall, unmerciful inanity. None of them, however, mentions what is, upon reflection, surely the most pressing, underlying structural issue: that journalism as a profession now largely takes place by virtue of—and is, in fact, almost entirely mediated and governed by—a largely unaccountable corporate advertising and surveillance behemoth, the goals and values of which are antithetical to journalism, traditionally understood. All of which raises an obvious question: Why are journalists so enamoured of Twitter?

In his highly illuminating Washington Post column, Von Drehle suggests three possible answers. The first, he writes, is that “many journalists are surprisingly shy,” and Twitter permits them to source quotes “without the need for uncomfortable personal interactions.” The second is that Twitter allows journalists to quickly and cheaply churn out a lot of quick and easy content, which is extremely beneficial in an age in which “many journalists are these days under intense pressure to produce quick ‘takes’ on the news to drive website traffic.” And the third reason is that journalists have a “smart-aleck gene,” and that “a perfect cynical comment or comeback can be savored and shared by thousands” on Twitter, whereas “pre-Twitter, the same gem might have found only a paltry few listeners to enjoy it.” (In an excellent essay entitled “Why Journalists Love Twitter” in Current Affairs, Emily Robinson suggests a further, related reason—that journalists are “prone to clubby insularity,” and that “Twitter provides new ways for them to confirm their preexisting worldviews,” as well as “receive instantaneous praise from their own followers.”) All of this sounds eminently plausible, but the question itself may proceed from flawed premises. Perhaps journalists don’t in fact like using Twitter any more than the average person, and their heavy use of the platform is simply a reflection of professional pressure coupled with its highly addictive nature.

Regardless of the reasons, journalists on Twitter would do well to remind themselves of a few basic truths. First, social media companies in general, and Twitter in particular, have had a deeply pernicious impact on their chosen profession (and not only by virtue of the fact that such companies are sucking up the vast majority of current advertising revenue at the expense of newsrooms). Second, that journalism as a profession existed, often highly successfully, well before the advent of such companies. (Including, by the way, journalism of the interminably high-octane 24-hour “breaking news” variety.) Third, there is nothing inevitable about journalists having to live and work on a platform that is, in every conceivable respect, at odds with the implicit and explicit goals of their chosen profession. In short, the prescription journalists need to follow is, I think, a simple one: For the good of their profession, their mental health, and indeed wider society, they should all get off Twitter now. And they should never, ever come back.

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