Twitter is…

…always discussed in the singular, apparently.

I refer to something I saw this morning over coffee. Being at Saturday, it would be inappropriate if there wasn’t at least one piece I read in The Age that gave me a good chuckle, and today it was this piece by Amanda Dunn, titled “Right on skew: news takes a tumble in the Twitter hole”. Terrible title notwithstanding (another vote for the subediting fraternity), this piece was representative of something I’ve seen increasingly often among members of the legacy/traditional/mainstream/whatever media: the ‘Twitter as unitary mass’ article.

UrghDunn opens up referring to a tweet from prolific, savvy and fiercely cynical political blogger Possum Comitatus that things got pretty dumb, pretty fast after the election announcement. Ignoring the fact that he was referring to the larger media response, Dunn dives right in and extrapolates that ‘Twitter’ was behaving stupidly, focusing on the nebulous and ephemeral elements of that news (footy finals, Yom Kippur, spectacles, etc.).

This, then, naturally led to a wider discussion about ‘Twitter’; that it’s a politically biased outrage engine/outrage vector. Oh, and of course, it’s “wonderful…for a journalist it’s a fantastic resource”.

And there it is. Even though Ms Dunn is on Twitter, and may well be a prolific user, she exhibits exactly the kind of ignorance of its purpose/use that SO many old media types seem to. She sees it not only as a singular mass, but as some kind of encyclopaedia of public attitudes, to be dipped into every time she needs to pad out a piece with a quote.

Much of this stems back to the abstract verb that headlines this post: “is”. Discussion of Twitter always seems to be about what Twitter “is”, even though it has millions of users in Australia and hundreds of millions of users globally. Any time you collect hundreds of millions (or even dozens) of people in one place, using the third person singular “is” is a mistake.

Twitter (and almost all social media for that matter) is not some unthinking mass consciousness. It is an enormous group of people who self-select into sub-communities based on shared interests. Kind of like the real world. There are crazy lefties on Twitter. Crazy tories on Twitter (#auspol). Bieber fanatics. Food bloggers. Fashion bloggers. “Mummy” bloggers (god bless ’em) and everything in between.

Sometimes they overlap and a Twitter user with a passion for poaching eggs will offer some trenchant political insight, and get re-tweeted around the political twittersphere, as the gargantuan Venn diagram that is Twitter will inevitably overlap. But mainly, she will likely tweet primarily about food with other food fans on Twitter.

And here’s another thing. Dunn, in writing this piece, isn’t looking at ‘Twitter’, she’s looking at the small subset of Twitter that she has carved out for herself. This outrage factory she sees fit to mock and follow simultaneously is the part of Twitter that best reflects her, a point that naturally goes un-raised in the piece.

And even if she somehow stumbled across some representative cross-section of the entire community in her feed, there is a larger point here. When people collectively get wound up about the latest stupid thing Kochie said, or whether they like the PM’s new glasses, or whether it’s ridiculous that everyone’s focusing on the PM’s new glasses, this is not some indictment of the medium. It’s the kind of conversation people have had, every day, since forever. Only now, they’ve found entire communities of like-minded people willing to share that conversation. And that can only be a good thing.

Perhaps the answer, to return to the headline, is to think about the verb. ‘Is’ is inappropriate. Twitter is full of people. One would not say ‘people is focused on the inane and the trivial’. Perhaps, discombobulating as it feels, we should be saying that ‘Twitter are crazy’. At least, reductive as that argument may be, it would convey the notion that the million-plus Australians on Twitter are not some unfettered hive-mind, bent on gossiping the country to early senility.

Side-bar: On a semi-related note, the piece Dunn wrote, readable as it was, was written in much the manner I wrote this (I would also like to think that I can be readable on the odd occasion). I wrote this, in about twenty minutes, after witnessing some media, having some feelpinions about said media, and then expressing those feels in a fairly stream of consciousness manner. I did this for nothing, and perhaps on one will read it. Ms Dunn probably got $1 a word. Perhaps this is another way in which traditional media is behind the eight ball.

UPDATE: So when I posted this, I also tweeted it, including a nod to @amandadunn10, the author of the piece in question. She didn’t respond or acknowledge. Again, speaking volumes about how she views Twitter as a medium.

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