Sunday, June 14, 2009

If Twitter beat CNN, then perhaps we should refer to Johnny Orangeseed

Apples & Oranges - They Don't Compare by Michael Johnson (TheBusyBrain) used under a Creative Commons License

As I read my feeds today, I see that both Robert Scoble and the Inquisitr's Steven Hodson are loudly proclaiming that Twitter beat CNN in Iranian election coverage. Not exactly. Perhaps it's my extensive experience in the Facebook application Farm Town, but it appears that I, unlike Scoble and Hodson, am able to tell the difference between an apple and an orange.

Not that I'm perfect. I'll admit that I really haven't been following coverage of the Iranian election. Part of the reason, however, is because I admit my ignorance in Iranian politics. While I'm sure that many Americans are of the opinion "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is bad, get him out," I haven't followed Iranian politics closely enough to know if his main opponent is any better. For all I know, Ahmadinejad is perceived as a wishy-washy apostate in Iran because Israel hasn't been nuked into oblivion yet. So if the US were to back Ahmadinejad's opponents, there's no guarantee that things would work out better for us. Just to cite one example, when Iran took U.S. hostages in 1979, the US eventually came up with the bright idea of backing Saddam Hussein. As Kuwaitis (and others, including Americans) will tell you, that didn't work out so well.

But while I haven't followed the ins and outs of Iranian domestic affairs, Robert Scoble has. He has a personal interest in Iran, and was following the news of the Iranian election on Twitter. Scoble:

Yesterday is the day when Twitter thoroughly beat CNN. Badly beat CNN. Embarrassingly beat CNN. And most other USA-based media too.

Scoble then links to various FriendFeed discussions, then jumps into the fire. OK, he didn't jump into the fire, he walked to a fire pit near his home:

My friend Luke Kilpatrick (he lives a couple of blocks away from me) invited me down to the Ritz at about 9 p.m. tonight. He met up there with a couple of geeks....

It was dark, so I couldn’t see who else was there around the fire ring out back.

Anyway, I was pretty passionate about this CNN story, since every hour we had been turning through the channels trying to learn about Iranian news (my wife is Iranian and hadn’t been able to call her relatives in Tehran). So I was telling Luke about how Twitter was totally kicking ass over CNN (CNN, when I kept turning it on, had nothing on and, instead was playing shows like Larry King Live with a couple of guys who build motorcycles).

That’s when I heard a voice say “what are you saying about Twitter?” I looked up and it’s Evan Williams, founder/CEO of Twitter. Oh, hi!

Anyway, I congratulated him on kicking USA’s media’s behind (CNN wasn’t the only one who wasn’t covering the Iranian protests).

Hodson continued the "Twitter beat CNN" thread:

These days though [CNN] seems to be all about some dumb beauty queen having her crown taken way or some other mundane bland repetitive non-news.

A perfect example of this is the recent events in Iran where the people are literally rioting on behalf of Mir Hossein Mousavi because of his unexpected loss to sitting president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, In this case the most current and reliable source of news coming out of the region has been on Twitter. Along with passing along news as it was happening in Iran there was also a growing movement of people calling CNN to task over their coverage of what could be a world changing event.

However, it is NOT accurate to compare Twitter and CNN, because Twitter and CNN are two entirely different types of things.

CNN (the abbreviation stands for Cable News Network) is, as the name implies, a media company with a television network and additional outlets such as its websites, and staffed by "almost 4,000" people. For more information about CNN, go here.

Twitter is not a media network. Twitter is not "staffed." Twitter is a tool that is used by millions of people. In fact, as Ashton Kutcher and Oprah Winfrey will happily tell you, one of those Twitter users is...@cnn. And @cnnbrk.

So to say that "Twitter beat CNN" is misleading. Twitter is not a single organized news reporting entity. Twitter is several million services, a few of which were reporting news, some of which were reporting inane stuff, and many of which were not reporting at all. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that some Twitter users were reporting more accurate news than the two Twitter users @cnn and @cnnbrk.

But in a sense a comparison between the two is apt, if you consider CNN the "experts" and Twitter a collection of "the wisdom of the crowd." I talked about this before, and perhaps it's appropriate to return to the issues raised there. One example provided in the post was David Risley's decision to seek Better Business Bureau approval for his online business. And I noted that there are times that you seek an authoritative source, and times that you don't:

[W]e can't decide whether we should trust the wisdom of the crowds, or the wisdom of a selection process. Those who argue for the latter would say that I should check with an authoritative source before doing business with David Risley, I should seek someone employed as a music journalist to evaluate music, I'd better take my car to the dealer that's certified to maintain it, I'd better buy software from a company that screens its employees, and I should trust the elected legislature to make decisions on my behalf.

But what about news? I am not ready to say that Twitter (the crowds) is always better than CNN in terms of news. If I were to believe what I read on Twitter, then I would believe that amassing large numbers of Twitter followers is the way to make lots of money. After all, that's what a lot of the social media experts say on Twitter. CNN doesn't happen to be breaking that story, Robert and Steven. Did CNN miss the boat on this, too?

OK, let's rule out the SEO junk. One could claim that a number of independent tweets about an event seems to indicate that the event is true. But is it? If that's the case, then Patrick Swayze died last month. Here's what Gawker wrote on May 19:

Patrick Swayze is alive and well, his spokesman has confirmed. How did false reports of his passing consume the internet for several hours today? Through the false rumor's vehicle of choice: Twitter....

But there's something about Twitter. Just last week it was the hotbed of a gay-marriage hysteria that fooled even the Los Angeles Times. A month earlier, it was #amazonfail, outrage over a gay-book ban that wasn't. (Although, repetition on Twitter is so powerful that there are some who still think there was something to that.)

Now I don't know if CNN reported the death of Patrick Swayze, or that Amazon banned gay books, or whatever. But Twitter, the same tool (and again, it's just a tool) that reported the Iranian riots, also reported the death of Patrick Swayze.

In essence, anyone can get the story wrong. CNN can get the story wrong, or thousands of Twitter users can get the story wrong. As Fox Mulder used to say, "Trust no one."

OK, Fox Mulder didn't say that. According to this source and this source, Deep Throat said it. But I'm not sure if the sources are correct.
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