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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Drifting Away From Twitter, Toward Reality

Posted By on Tue, May 15, 2012 at 10:39 AM

I've been known to strongly defend Twitter, which some people have found surprising because of my default digital skepticism. But of course, I was skeptical of it at first (if nothing else, because of the name, which is stupid), until I started using it. It really can be used for quite practical purposes by people who want to follow a particular topic area, and who carefully choose which accounts to follow.

If you do that, you rarely see people living up to the clichés of telling everyone what they had for lunch, how cute their pets are, or how cute (or terrible) Justin Bieber is. For a few years, I told people they should at least give Twitter a try if they were interested in news updates, especially if they were interested in a particular topic. It serves as a real-time, crowdsourced headline service like no other.

And yet, lately I've found myself using it less, and increasingly going back to my RSS feeds for news. RSS feeds -- full of professionally produced news that has been vetted and filtered by what digital triumphalist types derisively call "gatekeepers." Which is fine with me. Let a billion gatekeepers bloom. Because a Twitter feed, even one peopled entirely by professionals, many of them journalists ("gatekeepers," supposedly) ultimately is shallow. This, I have come to realize, is because Twitter tends to reinforce the insane notion that speed and volume are the two most important considerations in the dissemination of news and information.

This not only erodes the quality of the news we consume, it also tends to inflate the importance of what should be minor events. Judging solely by my Twitter feed last week, the decision by Apple to develop its mobile maps product in-house rather than rely on Google Maps seemed at least as important as J.P. Morgan's gargantuan trading losses or the Republicans' decision to renege on their budget promises and propose massive cuts to social-welfare programs. News items that once would have been relegated to the "briefs" sections of trade magazines are now big news, discussed and debated to death.

Another, related problem is the number of people who seem to be obsessed with Twitter -- tweeting in some cases hundreds of times per day. I have taken to unfollowing such people, because they wreck the experience. But that also means that I miss the 5 percent of their tweets that I might want want to see.

Many of the same people who spend all day, every day on Twitter are also the ones who seem to want to almost anthropomorphize Twitter, referring to it not only as a living being with human qualities, but as a freedom-fighting hero. (In stories about the Arab Spring uprisings, the people rising up and risking their lives were often given second billing to the technologies they were using. Twitter and Facebook, those are the real heroes.)

The reasons for my drifting away from Twitter (I'm not giving up on it entirely yet) and back toward more filtered sources of news are nicely exemplified by this blog post, about how Obama's recent trip to Afghanistan was reported before the administration wanted it to be. "Twitter broke the news, naturally, thanks to a post from an Afghan news website..." the blogger tells us.

Twitter didn't break the news, naturally or otherwise; it  was merely the platform on which the news was quickly disseminated. This is worth noting, of course -- the speed with which Twitter and other social media are able to spread news in unprecedented (to both good and bad effect -- mostly bad, I'm beginning to think.) But the tone of so many of these accounts is downright bizarre, with Twitter being referred to almost as a god. The news in this case was broken by an Afghan journalist, but that journalist, in this account, is a mere footnote to the story. Twitter is what's more important, and the reality of what really happened is, weirdly, acknowledged and dismissed all at the same time.

If nothing else, I hope that relying more on traditional sources of news will help keep me grounded. Our heads, after all, are already way too full of useless crap, aren't they? As useful as the service might be, being on Twitter all the time doesn't seem like a good way to maintain a healthy, rational perspective.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Dan Mitchell


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