Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lenore Taylor, old media, politicians and twits atwittering

Voters need something more than newspapers.

Why do I think this? Well I've just read Lenore Taylor's penetrating and insightful column Voters need something more than blogs.

Which on reading turns out not to be about blogs but all about Twitter, with a couple of totally minor references to blogging. 

And if a header can't tell you the contents of a column, there's a pretty big roadblock to understanding anything.

Then there's the admission by Taylor that she's a nube twit:

Twitter is clearly a medium with a potential still being fully explored.

I am, I must confess, a notorious late adopter of new technology. Not in a closed-minded "I want nothing to do with that new-fangled stuff" kind of way. It's just that I'm busy and have precious little time to check out new things unless there's a need.

As with all late breaking novitiates, there follows an explanation of twittering, and a prompt recoil at the new form of communication. As if reading the Daily Terror was somehow a virtuous exercise in philosophy by comparison:

At first blush a micro-blogging site that asks you to report what you are doing in 140 characters or less, 24 hours a day, seems a perfect forum for narcissists with attention deficit disorder. Why would I be interested in reading about what someone is doing every moment of every day when I'm not even always all that interested in the edited highlights they offer once a month over a cup of coffee?

And the popularity of some twitts is truly beyond my capacity to explain. For example, Ashton Kutcher, a photogenic young American actor married to actress Demi Moore, appears to have more than 2.5 million followers for tweets about what party he is about to go to and pictures of his latest pair of "favourite shoes" (an ostentatious pair of black, brown and white brogues).

Which suggests to me that Taylor needs to get out more - if she wants arcane trivia beyond the capacity of any human to explain, I suggest a course in reading Sydney Confidential in the Daily Terror for a week. Then she'll understand twits twittering so much better. Especially the stuff about favorite shoes and party going. (Or she could be trapped in a train with Mx - the first form of newsprint to aggregate twits into hard copy form, guaranteed to reduce commuters to brain dead zombies within five minutes).

But as has become a recent theme in the Murdoch press lately, the real concern is that devious politicians might now be able to bypass newspapers and their filtering and communicate directly with their customers. Twits twittering to twits without any filtering from twits. Now this might sound alarmingly like democracy - after all 140 characters is more than enough to sum up the Australian psyche on any issue (the Murdoch press usually reduce their polls to yes no and maybe) - but to Taylor it feels like a fiendish exercise in avoiding tricky media gotcha questioning:

But the appeal of the site to politicians is obvious. John Howard was quite open about his strategy to go over the heads of the press gallery -- whose members ask altogether too many questions -- to communicate directly with voters via talkback radio and soft television shows.

Rudd has enthusiastically followed suit, taking the strategy even further with appearances on even softer TV shows such as Rove.

Um, old media talking about old media and ways to avoid hard questions, but how do we get rid of a twit like Rove? Thank the lord, new media:

But new media, such as Twitter and blogging, renders that strategy, like, so last decade. Twitter removes all the middle men and women. It offers the possibility of direct communication with potentially millions of voters. That communication can be key political messages -- in just 140 characters there's no need for any inconvenient background information or evidence -- or personal, humanising titbits of daily life information.

Twitter also potentially opens doors to younger voters who don't listen the radio or read newspapers.

Ah yes, the tricky younger votes who don't read newspapers. Or care about middle persons. Curse the twits.

Time then for Taylor to dissect tweets by Chairman Rudd and Malcolm in the middle, and find them lacking in insight. One was about the football, another about the cricket, the cat and the dog, while Turnbull also delivered dog advice and a note about an upcoming forum. Fair average twittering from whoever handles their tweets.

"Have yet to master koan form for profound insight into meaning of life" seems to be Taylor's conclusion, but by this time I'm thinking Taylor would have benefited from the brevity of tweeting in her own column. New form of hamstrung dumb communication, don't know what to say, young people, help.

So all poor bypassed Taylor can do is poke and prod at the twits twittering, like she's inspecting a furball that's suddenly turned up in the middle of old media to rain on its parade (gee, what a twit, with a mixed metaphor like that):

Twitter is clearly a medium with a potential still being fully explored, even by those who have been using it for years. And it is of course not without its dangers. Information sent has not been verified, and in fact much of the information sent from Iran turned out to be wrong. And it can be easily manipulated.

But from my admittedly inexpert standpoint, the biggest danger for politicians is likely to be that their followers will get bored by the barrage of inanities contained in their tweets. Surely after a while people will want a bit more than the blog of their dog or the mood of their cat?

Well from my admittedly inexpert standpoint, I'm wondering whether the biggest danger for newspapers is that it's a medium that has been fully explored and found wanting, even by those who've been using them for years. Information often turns out to be wrong, and is easily manipulated, and it's likely readers of The Punch or any Murdoch blog will get bored by the barrage of inaccurate inanities contained therein. Surely after awhile people will want more than another dose of David Penberthy? Who after all makes the mood of a dog or a cat somehow strangely compelling.

I also doubt if the new Murdochian desire to engage with the intertubes will actually reach the young.

... a recent report commissioned by Morgan Stanley from a 15-year-old work experience student also raised questions about Twitter's usefulness in connecting with youth.

"Teenagers do not use Twitter. Most have signed up to the service, but then just leave it as they realise that they are not going to update it ... In addition, they realise no one is viewing their profile, so their tweets are pointless," he wrote.

Wow, old media right on target as usual. Why it was only a year ago in Time magazine that Bill Tancer from Hitwise was telling us that the key demographic was 18 to 24 year olds, and now it has skewed to males in the 35 to 44 year old age group (you can find data on a PEW study here and link to other data here).

But wait, it's not enough that mature age men are now twittering like twits, instead of displaying a steely laconic quality we expect of men while the women tweet like twitterers, but there are other enemies facing old media.

It seems young people prefer Facebook, but Taylor notes this won't faze politicians, as most of them have been amassing Facebook friends for ages. Taylor doesn't go on to tell us whether she too has been amassing Facebook friends for yonks - the experience of encountering the twits in twitterdom seems to have exhausted her - but by providing her own admittedly inexpert point of view, I've formed the alarming view that old media is now flailing around, desperate to find a new and coherent role and sense of self in the age of twits.

If only Taylor had bothered to seek out some of the data, she might have been reassured. There's nothing like  old news to produce a reliable sense of tradition and inertia, and nothing like reading about a nube grappling with the fiendish new world of the technologically astute to produce a realization that even if I'm a twit, there are plenty of other twits out there too. Even if they turn out to be men heading towards middle age. 

And the data might also have saved her sudden panic about journalism and the need to write a column bemoaning new mediums that demand some kind of understanding in this crazy mixed up world.

Because Pew data suggests that twits love reading newspapers ...

(Below: Pew data on news consumption, and Quantcast data on the American demographic breakdown of twits six months ago).

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