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Monday, July 25, 2011

Twitter leaves the media standing

Yesterday morning Broadcasting House on Radio 4 carried an item about the death of Amy Winehouse. The reporter went to Camden Square and mused into his microphone about why people were standing around. He then recorded interviews with them. It seems likely that even more people will subsequently come to stand around because at last something was happening. People were getting interviewed about why they were standing around.

The media may well have to get used to just standing around looking at people standing around because this weekend's events have seen them not so much breaking stories as puffing along in their wake. The first hint of the events in Oslo appeared in my Twitter timeline in the middle of Friday afternoon. I searched on "Oslo" and immediately my screen looked like the Dow Jones index at the height of a crash, with tens of thousands of tweets in different languages scrolling past at an unreadable speed. I switched on Five Live, which is the BBC's news and sport station, to hear Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode reviewing films. I found myself on an RTE site where they were just running the feed from Norwegian TV.

Similarly the following afternoon I was watching rugby on TV with the iPad on my lap when a tweet appeared from a source who you'd expect to be well informed, asking "Is this Winehouse story true?". I immediately searched on "Winehouse" and discovered what the story was. This can't have been more than half an hour after the ambulance had arrived at her home. An hour later it was confirmed.

Obviously mainstream broadcasters and newspapers can't publish on the basis of unsubstantiated tweets but the pressure to do so is going to become harder and harder to resist. And this at a time when there is talk of them being brought into line. It'll be funny if the press are restrained from intruding into private lives while at the same time a medium ideally suited to the spreading of unsubstantiated gossip become's the nation's favourite toy.


  1. I was at work on Saturday afternoon, having a break that happened to coincide with the breaking rumours/news on Twitter about Amy Winehouse's death. I finished my break and went and told my colleagues to turn on BBC News 24. It was another 15 minutes before they announced her death. Then, half an hour later, I started getting texts telling me of the news. I always find it a bit difficult not to sound rather arrogant at times like this; because what I really want to say is a more polite version of "With the greatest respect, I know. I found out half an hour before you did because I read Twitter and you don't". If Twitter's only redeeming feature was the ability to be first with the news - to make everyone who uses it seem 'in the know' - that would be enough to justify its worth. But, as we who use it know, it's far more useful than that. It astonishes me that so many people are still so resistant to it.

  2. I notice that both the Observer and the IoS had to rely on celebrity tweeters for their comments and reaciotns to the Winehouse story. For some reason, what Philip Schofield felt about the news was somehow deemed important enough to print in both.

  3. @ Lucas Hare Sorry, but I would rather wait 15 minutes for a report on the BBC which is credible than have an unsubstantiated rumour from Twitter.

    And tell us, what did you DO in that 15 minutes? What difference did it make thinking that you knew something for a quarter of an hour before the rest of us?

  4. Perhaps I should clarify my point. I neither seek nor gain some kind of moral victory from being on Twitter and therefore being able to access such information before others. All I'm saying is that it seems strange that so many are willing to write off Twitter when it has so many obvious uses: one of the most significant being its ability to transmit information quicker than other media. Unsubstantiated or not, the news as I read it on Saturday was via several creditable journalists, rather than from less reliable sources. I merely found it interesting that it took the BBC another 15 minutes to run the story. That, in this day and age, the quickest way - and often a perfectly reliable way - to hear news is via Twitter.

    In that 15 minutes I carried on with my life; and it made no difference to anyone that I knew about it before some people. It's just interesting to me that Twitter still garners such derision, despite its obvious uses. It reminds me of the old barman in The Wild One (1953) who, when asked if he watches television, replies "Oh, pictures? No. No pictures. Everything these days is pictures. Pictures and a lot of noise. Nobody even knows how to talk - just grunt at each other."

  5. It does seem a perfect irony.

  6. I think the point Gerontius makes still stands: there is no great use to knowing about a breaking news story before most people do, except for that momentary illicit thrill it affords us.
    We had a situation in Ireland about a year ago where a well-known DJ died from cocaine use and it was all over Twitter hours before it made the mainstream news, largely because the traditional media felt obliged to wait for an official announcement of his death. This led to the weird situation where some of the DJ's colleagues and friends had to go on air knowing what the situation was, but duty-bound to pretend that everything was normal. A well-respected journalist was one of the main culprits to bleat (bweet?) on about it, before the dead man's family could be notified through more appropriate channels. He said it was "too big a story to wait." Bullshit, I say.
    We all love to be on the cutting edge of things, but it can become a sick form of entertainment.

  7. I want to know about a breaking news story before most people do. But then I'm a hack. I wouldn't mind betting that quite a few normal human beings do as well.

  8. What is being said here about Twitter could be applied more generally to online versus mainstream media. The distinction is only in the degree, not the fact of greater relevance/immediacy.

    To me, it's crystal clear that the only way ahead for traditional media is not to compete in a hopeless battle with the immediacy of the internet but to provide a longer term / analytical viewpoint. Weekend papers, in other words.

    Hard to see much future for the dailies other than Metro style tube browsing fodder

  9. Thwe only message I'm interested in receiving before most as that a run has started on my bank. That my ban is on the internet renders even that use superfluous to me.

  10. "Life is complicated. News should be too." -- David Simon, creator of The Wire, speaking at Cannes Lions 2011, in a direct attack on Twitter. Well, it's a point of view.

  11. I'm sure Simon's right about the explanation of news but this is a new way of hearing news. Attacking Twitter is as much use as the Pony Express attacking Western Union.