Twitter and the new news

Disclosure: I get my news from Twitter. Also from Quartz, the New York Times and the Financial Times, but I only check those sites once a day (and sometimes not even that). Twitter I (generally) check a few times a day, skimming for articles relevant to my work and for breaking news headlines.

The idea that Twitter is a major source of news is nothing new. A Pew Research Center survey in early 2015 showed that 11% of Americans got their news from the social channel. That may not sound like much, until you take into account that a similar survey at the end of 2014 put the figure at 8%. That’s almost a 40% increase. And 63% of Twitter users say they use the platform to stay informed on current events. Break it down by generation, and the figures are even more striking: 33% of millennials get their news from Twitter. And since they will define the evolution of media models in the years to come, this is worth thinking about.

twitter news

image from Death to the Stock Photo

What is new is the effect that this trend is having on the packaging of the news. Instead of reading articles or listening to reports, we see 140-character summaries. Headlines, if you will. Bite-sized current events, which keep us up to date without filling our heads with unnecessary detail.

Which is fine. Enjoyable, even. Interesting headlines give us an adrenalin rush. Especially when there’s another one coming soon.

We have always known the emotional, attention-grabbing effect of “BREAKING NEWS” (notice how it’s almost always in capitals?) splashed across the screen, and spoken with urgent gravity by the newsperson. Now we can get our breaking news all day, not just when we’re in front of the TV. Dan Gillmor in his book Mediactive suggests that the 24-hour news cycle is too slow.

“Even an hourly news cycle is too long; in an era of live-TV police chases, Twitter and twitchy audiences, the latest can come at any minute. Call it the 1,440-minute news cycle.”

We crave our updates, our hit. That’s why we check our messages, our emails, our feeds with such frequency. Surely something interesting must have happened since the last time I checked?

twitter breaking news

Why do we care? Psychologists have long struggled to answer this question. What is the news really for?

It used to be largely about “keeping up”, about “being well-informed”. To some extent, it still is. We feel that it is our civic duty to know what’s happening in our area, country, world. For many, it’s a social imperative. We want to impress our friends, acquaintances and colleagues about our knowledge of current events, and we love it when we know stuff that they don’t.

All of that still holds true, at least partially. But more and more of us are recognizing and confessing that we enjoy keeping up with the news because it’s interesting. It entertains us, it distracts us from our daily boredom.

And this is especially relevant when we get our news real-time, frequently, and through headlines. With so much information to scroll through, a headline will stick if it is interesting enough. BREAKING NEWS on Twitter would not have the same high-octane impact as on the TV, since most tweets are breaking, ephemeral, now-or-never.

twitter news

So, how does this trend – of more and more people getting their news on Twitter – impact our understanding of the news? Obviously our “knowledge” of current events is going to be more superficial than if we read a newspaper cover to cover, or religiously watch the lunch-time news reports on the television. Those of us who are interested can click on the links that are usually included with the aim of enticing you to the news media´s website. And we’re generally not afraid of searching for more information if we want it.

There’s the key: if we want it. We are more in control now of the news that we “consume” (I hate that term, but I haven’t managed to come up with a better one). We choose, select and filter, whereas until recently we were told what was important, and we were fed the information that the media thought we should have. Now, we choose what’s important to us. That’s a huge change. Before, we always had the option of skipping articles. But we knew they were there. And it was a conscious choice. Now, skipping is so ubiquitous that it has become the norm. It has to, for us to be able to cope. Imagine if you read every link that passed in front of you on your Twitter feed. Even if you only follow 50 sites (and most of us are some multiple of that), it would take all day. So, not skipping becomes the choice activity. And we find ourselves limiting our reading (of more than 140-characters) to subjects that we are interested in.

That sounds efficient, right? Unless you believe that the purpose of the news is to inform us of what’s happening, not just what’s happening within our interests. This is where the consumption of news verges on civic duty. But also on a sense of belonging. Back when the news media was much more concentrated, we more or less, as a community, were united in front of the same news stories. Our reactions were collective although possibly also private and varied. Now, with so many news outlets catering to so many styles and objectives, each is hearing about his or her particular niche, in the style that he or she selected.

That’s for when we care enough to go deeper. And the news companies want us to care enough to go deeper. So, to get us to care, what must a news company do?

Present the news in a way that encourages us to care. More “breaking news” headlines, more click-bait style “you won’t believe what happened in…”, more “this affects you because…”.

As Alain de Botton said in his wonderful book “The News: A User’s Manual”:

“[the news media now have] a goal higher still than accuracy: the hope of getting important ideas and images across to their impatient and distracted audiences.”

Yet with more attention-grabbing tactics, our attention dilutes. We only have so much to go around, and even BREAKING NEWS in big capital letters doesn’t set our hearts racing as before. The stakes are high. Again from Alain de Botton’s “The News”:

“…when news fails to harness the curiosity and attention of a mass audience through its presentational techniques, a society becomes dangerously unable to grapple with its own dilemmas and therefore to marshal the popular will to change and improve itself.”

This “unbundling” of headlines and content provides a service, in that it allows us to skim the news much more efficiently. But it comes at the price of giving us control over what we care about. In an industry structure based on traffic and advertising revenue, the aim of the online news media is to get as many visitors as they can. There is a strong economic incentive to write about what most people are interested in, which will be celebrity gossip, sports, perhaps cat videos. True, “general interest” is not the same as “news”. Yet most news sources now feature both, and a click is a click.

This trend is, unfortunately, unstoppable. As always, it comes down to free will, and I think that we can all agree that no-one can or should be forced to read or watch the news. As choice becomes more important, the selection of content is broadening and at the same time deepening. For those of us who just want Game of Thrones updates and information on the weather, we’re in luck. For those of us who want additional insight, long-form journalism seems to be enjoying a resurgence (or overload, depending on your point of view), as new media models make it easier for us to find good articles that teach and inspire.

As someone who loves long-form and who has little interest in “trending topics”, I do sometimes worry about becoming too narrow. I don’t just get my news on Twitter, only clicking on articles within my field or that catch my eye for some reason. I also read general-interest magazines and some online media. But for elective long-form, I do go narrow. Which is why I’m excited about the roll-out of This.cm, with its curated but not interest-specific short daily list of 5 articles worth reading, according to the editorial team. Not interest-specific. But interesting.

As with most technology, Twitter not only facilitates but also influences our behaviour. As we let brief headlines channel our interest, so too do we start to think of the news that way. We all know the power of the sound bite. Twitter takes that to print form. The news reduced to 140 characters, or even fewer if there’s an image or a link attached. Like sound bites: attention-grabbing and brief.

Brevity is not a friend of thoroughness. And if we choose brevity over thoroughness, how does that shape our view of the world? We snatch at generalization and hypothesis, and think that we are well-informed.

And perhaps we are, but in a different way. Are we 100% sure that the “old” way of getting the news, by reading print and by watching reports, was better? Skimming Twitter, I get my headlines and my breaking news, but I also get a feel for trends and moods and what people find funny. According to Science Daily, half of the most popular items on Twitter – the “trending topics” – don’t make it to the mainstream news. Does that mean they are unimportant? For some, certainly. But for others, this freedom to express oneself and choose paths is perhaps more liberating than stultifying, and can open up inventiveness and connections that end up creating more value for society than in-depth knowledge. It’s really too soon to condemn one form of “keeping up” as dumb and the other as smart, when I imagine that they are both a bit of each.

We’re redefining the role that news has in our lives. And we’re definitely redefining the way we access it, just as news organizations and media startups are scrambling to give us, and to influence, what we want. We have never been so spoiled for choice when it comes to staying informed, just as we have never had so much opportunity to participate in the spread of the news, in its interpretation and its consequences. These are exciting times, and also a bit scary in that this shift may seem superficial, but it’s not. It affects our relationship with the big world that we live in, which until recently was largely through the barrier of the TV screen or the newspaper. Now we “live” through dramatic situations by reading live tweets and by hitting “refresh” frequently. With the incorporation of live-streaming videos from Periscope, Meerkat and the like, our engagement is deeper. We experience events albeit remotely, we share them by re-tweeting, we participate by commenting.

This adrenalin-producing participation is addictive. The news is all around us now, and it’s mixed in and shaken up with popular culture, trending topics and collective trends. It’s complicated and it’s real, and rather than pronouncing the change “good” or “bad”, it’s important to understand the difference between now and then, and to accept that with change comes opportunity. In this case, the opportunity that we have is to embrace the new definitions, whatever they are. And to adapt them to suit our own priorities.

 

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