This past Sunday, as I engaged in my usual ritual of perusing my Twitter feed before going to sleep, I came across a story that is pure entertainment-news gold for all of the producers at E! News and editors at People magazine: Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively got married! I saw numerous tweets sent out on this topic, and I went to sleep while thoughts of clandestine and quiet yet elegant celebrity weddings danced in my head.
The next morning, news of the covert Reynolds-Lively ceremony was everywhere, naturally.
(Leave it to The Huffington Post to somehow tie a story about the wedding into a story about their favorite plantations, all of which were displayed in the form of a slideshow that took forever to load, of course.) Ryan Reynolds even trended on Twitter on Monday morning. While various celebrity news outlets covered this story, to me, it was old news. (I am aware that I’m using the word “news” loosely.) I was all over that story last night! Give me something different, something groundbreaking. New details on the upcoming Aniston-Theroux nuptials, perhaps? I foresee a future slideshow topic, HuffPo: “Jennifer and Justin through the years.”
The fact that Twitter trumped more traditional channels of news in breaking this story prompted me to start thinking about the way in which news breaks and the way in which people follow the news. I’ve discovered news on more than one occasion through Twitter.
I first realized the capability of social media to break news when I learned about Whitney Houston’s death on Twitter. Celebrity death hoaxes and inaccurate news stories on Twitter are more common than slideshows on Huffington Post articles, so I was skeptical. I turned on CNN for confirmation, but I actually had to wait a few minutes before CNN reported on the story. That’s because Twitter broke the news of Whitney Houston’s death twenty-seven minutes before mainstream media.
And, I’m not talking solely about celebrity stories. Last month, I was procrastinating on Twitter when I noticed that “Fareed Zakaria” was one of the Trending Topics. As a long-time reader of Time magazine, I immediately became intrigued, so I clicked on the topic, read a handful of tweets, and discovered that Zakaria, Time editor-at-large and CNN host, had been suspended by Time for plagiarism. I proceeded to search “Fareed Zakaria” on Google News and found that as the story was breaking on various websites, it was simultaneously breaking on Twitter.
It seems like Twitter and news fit together perfectly. Twitter might as well be tailor-made for news: it thrives on timely, fast-paced, continuous updates and quick bursts of conversation. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security monitors social media sites for breaking news of major disasters and other events (I’ll forego addressing the Big Brother-esque nature of this and instead simply use it as a testament to the way in which social media is becoming an important source of news). How do social media and the news interact? Is social media replacing traditional means (i.e., broadcast TV, newspapers, and websites) of acquiring news?
In order to answer this question, I decided to conduct a social experiment of sorts. For three days, I used Twitter as my only source of news. No broadcast news networks, no websites. I wanted to see if I could rely solely on a social media outlet and still stay up-to-date. If I want to remain knowledgeable about current events, can I depend on Twitter? Is Twitter both sufficient and reliable from a news perspective?
Any social experiment needs a procedure, and while mine certainly wasn’t as controlled as those in which I volunteered to participate in college, I still needed to lay out some rules.
- No TV news outlets.
- No websites that provide news.
- Twitter trending topics are fair game.
- I follow what I deem to be reputable, reliable news sources with active Twitter, which for me include the following:
Every social experiment needs a way to measure the results. As far as a measuring how informed I was able to stay through Twitter, I enlisted the help of my coworkers, who regularly discuss current events. If I knew what my coworkers were talking about and was able to join in on the conversation because I had a solid amount of knowledge on the topic at hand, then I deemed Twitter a capable news provider. I know it’s quite easy to poke holes in my methodology, but without funding, an extended time period, research participants, and a psychology major, I worked with what I had.
Monday, September 10, marked day one of my social experiment. I quickly realized that there were two ways through which I could unearth global happenings: one, through tweets and two, through Twitter Trending Topics.
I discovered each of these ways had their pros and cons, and I’ll get to that later. I checked Twitter about four times per day, each time lasting approximately seven to ten minutes. I found that I was able to stay relatively informed through both tweets and trends. Talk of GoDaddy’s outage rapidly swept through my office that afternoon. I was logged onto Twitter, and when I glanced at the Trending Topics, I noticed that “DNS” and “#godaddy” were trending.
I also knew about the arrest of the Trenton, NJ, mayor by the FBI; the Chicago teacher’s strike; and tribal violence in Kenya—all care of CNN.
Another thing I quickly learned: if I wanted to discover breaking news, all I had to do was read a single tweet. A mere 140 characters kept me informed on occurrences throughout the globe, because these tweets boiled down the news to one brief, easily digestible, easily understandable statement. However, I had very limited knowledge of the details of a given story or the events leading up to a story, making it difficult to contribute a unique vantage point to my coworkers’ discussions.
On Tuesday, September 11, I monitored Twitter throughout the day, and again, found I was able to stay relatively well-versed in recent events. Thanks to the Trending Topics, I knew that President Obama did not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. (I also knew what every vocal politically oriented individual with a Twitter account and an opinion thought of this decision.)
I also discovered news of the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, again thanks to CNN.
On Wednesday, September 11, news of the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya dominated Twitter.
I knew all about the protests in Egypt and Libya, Sam Bacile’s Islamophobic video, and Pastor Terry Jones.
Throughout my three days immersed in Twitter timelines and Trending Topics, I discovered the pros and cons of using Twitter as a news source.
- As far as Trending Topics go, these can be very confusing. Many of them either make no sense or appear to be the result of a group of zealous, fanatical tweens hijacking the site in order to publicize their love for British boy bands (see Tuesday’s topic: #Bring 1D to Miami).
- Thus, Trending Topics are often hit and miss: sometimes they adequalty and accurately capture the state of news around the world, but sometimes they remain focused on trivial, frivolous, irrelevant topics (again, see #Bring 1D to Miami).
- Sometimes it’s difficult to cull the “real story” from the innumerable tweets that people post on a given topic. For example, “Chile” was trending on Tuesday, but I couldn’t discern whether this referred to the Chile vs. Colombia game or the fact that it was the anniversary of General Pinochet’s overthrow of Salvador Allende. Numerous tweets made reference to both topics.
- As far as tweets go, I follow over 100 people on Twitter, and I’m usually not glued to the site, so oftentimes, when @NBCNews or @CNN sends out a tweet, I either miss it, because I don’t have time to scroll that far back through my timeline, or it gets buried under other tweets.
- Sometimes, tweets are very unreliable. For example, if I relied solely on the tweets sent out about Pastor Terry Jones and did not read additional coverage via New York Magazine after my experiment concluded, I would have believed that Terry Jones created the video that sparked protests in Libya and Egypt that resulted in the death of Americans. Not true. Jones wasn’t involved in the inflammatory video’s creation.
- I found the best way to stay on top of the news was to peruse trends every now and then, click on a trend, and then read the tweets making reference to this trend. A combination of trends and tweets served me best.
The Bottom Line
Overall, I would say Twitter allowed me to stay up-to-date, albeit with certain limitations. I certainly didn’t feel as if I was living in a vacuum removed from the happenings of society; however, I think Twitter is more of a supplementary means of accessing news rather than one that is able to fully replace television and websites. And, I think that Twitter is much more useful as a means of curating news stories rather than breaking news. For example, if I want to get the details on the GoDaddy Outage or the Chicago Teacher’s Strike, rather than visiting various websites separately in order to read these details, I can simply follow accounts on Twitter and then I have links to stories all in one easily accessible place. I see Twitter as a news curator and/or news organizer, but I don’t think it possesses the power to dethrone broadcast behemoths (at least for now).
Research actually supports my view that Twitter is an additional path to news rather than a replacement for more traditional paths. In the 2012 State of the News Media Report, Pew Research found that Facebook and Twitter are still relatively small drivers for news: websites, keyword search results, and news-organizing apps all trump Facebook and Twitter as news sources. Also, an infographic from Schools.com found that TV news and newspapers still surpass social media as people’s main source of news (though newspapers not by much).
However, this same infographic reported that since 2009, traffic to news sites from social media platforms has increased 57%. Also, over 50% of people have learned about breaking news via social media rather than official news sources
I for one will continue to use Twitter as a supplement to my nightly dose of NBC Nightly News and daily perusal of The New York Times. One reason I would never be able to rely on Twitter alone for news for a period lasting longer than three days: Brian Williams, host of NBC Nightly News and Rock Center, America’s most-trusted news anchor (tied with PBS Newshour’s Jim Lehrer), and four time nominee for Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list.
Going 72 hours without seeing the face of BriWi grace my television screen was extremely taxing. Tonight, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the arrival of 6:30 pm.