Reporter Follows Celeb-Obsessed People, Complains Twitter Is Broken

Oh NYT. What are we going to do with you this month? First you run an op-ed so out of touch with reality it made the AARP look trendy. Now you run a story on Twitter that would make a newbie metablogger blush.

I’m not sure I had ever read a column by Jenna Wortham before but this one found it’s way into my stream. As I’m a fan of Nick Bilton and this was on the NYT Bits blog, I figured it was worth a read. But it was a huge let down. I know I demand a lot from media, but it’s the Times so they should be held to a high standard.

Let’s go through the parts of the story that were just completely wrong:

At some point, Twitter and the rest of social media became less about wanting to share the news and more about wanting to be the news.

At some point? Nope, Twitter has always been about sharing the news, being the news and more. Also note how a journalist thinks Twitter was just about sharing the news at one point (it wasn’t). Users have always been all over the spectrum of sharing, commenting on, remixing or inserting themselves into the news. It is social media, after all and all aspects of how people socialize are represented. I suppose we have to excuse some people for not realizing that we have been socializing on the web from day one. It just seems like about once a month we get someone who writes a Rip Van Winkle type story, as if they’re just waking up to what is happening online.

Continuing [emphasis mine]:

Take Justin Bieber, for example.

As reports of the once-angelic and deeply troubled Canadian pop star’s arrest began to make its way around the web, reactions streamed onto Twitter, ranging from jokes to tongue clucks.

But by far, the most common refrain was something like this: “Why is this news??”

The simplest answer is that it wasn’t — at least not the most important news happening on that particular day. But Twitter isn’t really about the most important thing anymore — it stopped being about relevancy a long time ago.

The hypocrisy here, it burns. A mainstream media columnist lamenting that celebrity gossip exists in a social platform. As if that’s anything new (it isn’t) but it’s hypocritical of her industry when supposed “serious” news networks such as CNN interrupt an interview with a congresswoman to break this “news:”

In fact, mainstream media news outlets clocked in at  a mind-numbing 1,789 sources sharing this news at last check-in Sunday evening:


Meanwhile, the New York Times didn’t just cover this story, they have an entire topic page dedicated to Bieber.

But of course, let’s blame Twitter for this when it is in fact mainstream media that are the starting point for this conversation. Also this reporter seems to be lamenting a world that never existed. We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture where media live to (over) cover this sort of thing. Social is merely a reflection of the world around us, so it’s hilarious to blame Twitter here. Twitter is actually successful at the macro level because of its ability to react to this topic in real-time. Lament the subject matter all you want but it totally misunderstands the Internet to place blame here on a platform that’s a blank canvas. I would actually blame the reporter’s industry, not tech, for our celebrity obsession.

I suppose we’ll continue through a few more points:

Twitter seems to have reached a turning point, a phase in which its contributors have stopped trying to make the service as useful as possible for the crowd, and are instead trying to distinguish themselves from one another. It’s less about drifting down the stream, absorbing what you can while you float, and more about trying to make the flashiest raft to float on, gathering fans and accolades as you go.

Wait, what? According to who? What data or citations are here to back this up? Oh, that’s right the author follows nearly 4,000+ people including (at a cursory glance) a mess of fire-hose streams that feed every piece of content they run automatically into Twitter. The fact that the author didn’t even fill out a URL as part of their bio is also suspect, I’d imagine if they didn’t do something so simple they haven’t gone through the effort of creating the right filtering system for sorting signal from noise in the stream either. Hint: there are tools to do this. Also, there’s a giant unfollow button: perhaps prune those pumping celeb-obsessed garbage into the stream? No, that’d be too easy. Write a column complaining the tech is broken instead.

Let’s keep going because I still don’t know how this was published in the New York Times and not some personal blog:

The psychology of crowd dynamics may work differently on Twitter than it does on other social networks and systems. As a longtime user of the service with a sizable audience, I think the number of followers you have is often irrelevant. What does matter, however, is how many people notice you, either through retweets, favorites or the holy grail, a retweet by someone extremely well known, like a celebrity. That validation that your contribution is important, interesting or worthy is enough social proof to encourage repetition. Many times, that results in one-upmanship, straining to be the loudest or the most retweeted and referred to as the person who captured the splashiest event of the day in the pithiest way.

So basically this person follows a bunch of self-promotional narcissists who crave celebrity endorsement or think vanity metrics matter. The author is clearly new to social platforms, these people have always existed. Forever. Since boards and forums of the 90s. But this is an ongoing (and strange trend): reading articles discussing Twitter and FB, w/o mention of the social web at large. It’s sort of depressing to constantly see the history of social glossed over. Journalists need to show context for us to take their arguments seriously, it shows they have been paying attention. As someone who has used social software since the 90s, I’ve see this behavior across platforms. It is not unique to Twitter which despite being a community focused on real-time has the same dynamics (even forums used similar social proofing such as showing post counts, year joined, etc.). The other thing here is this “problem” if you could call it that is the authors fault. I do not have this experience at all on my streams.

As a result, recency trumps relevancy, which is how a single, relatively insignificant news event can exasperate much of an entire community over the course of a day. There are several other recent events, in addition to Mr. Bieber’s arrest, that have captivated Twitter to the point of exhaustion.

This is just a strange statement and again shows a fundamental misunderstanding of digital communities. These events are not “insignificant” to the community if the community discusses them and finds them interesting. The point of social is in fact to be social, and part of being social is finding topics of conversation. On the Internet the insignificant is in many cases actually quite interesting, ripe for commentary and to those communities significant. Everyone is free to join and create the communities they find worthwhile.

As a sidenote one of the stories linked was the whole Justine Sacco fiasco. This story was not insignificant. A PR director of a major brand who is in a position of great responsibility to many stakeholders and employees making racist comments (not to mention a long list of Tweets sharing many inappropriate and offensive things, particularly for a senior comms person to say). As a member of the marketing / PR industry this person makes our whole category look bad, not to mention is potentially putting the reputation of her brand at risk. It is worthy of comment.

It feels as if we’re all trying to be a cheeky guest on a late-night show, a reality show contestant or a toddler with a tiara on Twitter — delivering the performance of a lifetime, via a hot, rapid-fire string of commentary, GIFs or responses that help us stand out from the crowd. We’re sold on the idea that if we’re good enough, it could be our ticket to success, landing us a fleeting spot in a round-up on BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post, or at best, a writing gig.

Again, this NYT columnists is clearly speaking from observation of the people she follows. An overwhelming majority don’t care about being included in a round-up on Lamefeed.

But more often than not, it translates to standing on a collective soapbox, elbowing each other for room, in the hopes of being credited with delivering the cleverest one-liner or reaction. Much of that ensues in hilarity. Perhaps an equal amount ensues in exhaustion.

Then unfollow your friends who you don’t find compelling. Actually, at this point her post is causing me to be exhausted more so than any Bieber jokes.

To say the service is no longer relevant or informed seems inaccurate — much of my day is still spent poring over Twitter, picking out the best links, insights, quips and bits to examine and share later — but it is less informed (and informative) than it used to be.

First of all, there are so many sources for story ideas besides Twitter. As a columnist and blogger myself Twitter is a great source but because I have a social listening dashboard setup as well as RSS feeds and belong to several niche communities. If Twitter is not fertile for good ideas, I look elsewhere. No one source will always produce. The author doesn’t have a problem with Twitter, they have filter failure.

We’re all milling about, infinitely hovering, waiting for our chance to speak, to add something clever to conversation, even when we’re better off not saying much at all.

Nope, we’re not. Just people who don’t understand the high cost of now. Seth Godin eloquently outlined this “problem” in 2008 and it isn’t a problem at all if you audit where you spend time and how and create the right alerts. Automation is your friend. Professionals don’t mill about and wait for things, they create processes.

Twitter is starting to feel calcified, slowed down by the weight of its own users, cumbersome, less exciting than exhausting. It may be why less public forms of communication — messaging applications like Snapchat, GroupMe, Instagram Direct and even old-fashioned e-mail threads and Google groups — are playing a bigger and bigger role in the most meaningful interactions during my day online.

I love this comment because it completely ignores ICQ, IRC, AOL IM and every other private chat we’ve had forever. Twitter solves a different and unique problem than messaging apps and appeals to a different type of user.

But even if the company were to snap to attention and give its community something other than Twitter lists and block or unfollow buttons to help users tailor their feeds, it most likely wouldn’t be enough. We, the users, the producers, the consumers — all our manic energy, yearning to be noticed, recognized for an important contribution to the conversation — are the problem. It is fueled by our own increasing need for attention, validation, through likes, favorites, responses, interactions. It is a feedback loop that can’t be closed, at least not for now.

The last graph of this is great because the author even recognizes it is the people she chooses to follow that are the problem but glosses over the fact she has the ability to fix it. Everyone else using Twitter understands the importance of occasional pruning. Maybe one of the millions of supposed “social media experts” can help Jenna get it together?

And we didn’t even mention the title of the story: Valley of the Blahs: How Justin Bieber’s Troubles Exposed Twitter’s Achilles’ Heel. Except a more accurate title would be “Jenna Wortham follows people who share blah-worthy content and are obsessed with teen celebrities.”

And for your moment of zen, my buddy Louis Gray sums up the response to this story pretty succinctly with a series of Tweets:


Hat tip to the ever-awesome Mathew Ingram for sharing this story to us. You can read his thoughts on this subject here.