Social Media's Identity Crisis

20th Mar.
The Chat

Today more than ever, social media plays a vital role in politics, business, in every aspect of life. Donald Trump uses his personal Twitter to announce policy and cabinet appointments as well as to defend his decisions and publicise his latest feud. The social media giants are publicly floated, with IPOs attracting colossal sums of money. Twitter’s finances remain stubbornly in the red. Meanwhile, Facebook’s own founder says his company are not doing enough to combat misinformation. Social media is unavoidable, but what has this done to how we receive and process information?

7 Mins (1716 Words)

Nikita BernardiTwitter is especially popular for finding out the news, many journalists log in to Twitter as their first port of call in the morning for news. Many people don’t have a favourable opinion of social media in general, but especially Twitter. But we are at a point where we can’t really avoid it.

Charlie TarrI think social media is going through a bit of an existential crisis at the moment. When it first started, everyone thought it was fantastic - a new toy for humanity, that soon became a revolutionary way for how people spoke to each other. But as Tim Berners-Lee said last week, the monster that he created needs to be wound in slightly. Whereas with traditional news outlets where there are clear editorial standards, Twitter is more like the wild west.

Tessa EvansI actually don’t think it’s Twitter that has created these problems, but rather Facebook. Everyone thought that Twitter was going to be just news and Facebook was going to be keeping up with family and friends, but actually, Facebook has become the main platform for news distribution. It has changed the way news spreads - everything looks the same on Facebook, whether you are reading a “Fake News” post created by a teenager in Macedonia, or an article by the New York Times. They are all presented to you in the same package.

CharlieThat’s a fair point. I think that is why most of the big news organizations such as the Financial Times, the New York Times, have made more of an effort to differentiate themselves on these platforms, trying to give themselves an identity.

TessaYes, exactly. No one visits home pages any more.

Adam MaddockOne of the things I like about Twitter is the immediacy of it. For example, if I am on a bus and the football is on, I can look at the score as it happens just by following it on Twitter.

CharlieBut now we are also seeing how divisive and dangerous the platform can be. The world is becoming increasingly polarised. Discourse, especially around politics, is becoming more and more toxic - people now have a tool where there is no accountability and it is utterly disposable. How do you control that?

NikitaI disagree about the accountability. I think now people are much more accountable because it is all on there. It is all in the public eye. Milo Yiannopoulos was kicked off Twitter, Katie Hopkins has been sued…

CharlieBut those with large followings - key influencers - can tweet whatever he or she wants to all their followers, and the damage is done. It doesn’t matter if someone is accountable for it or not. It’s a personal megaphone for misinformation – that is a challenge the media faces, social media companies face and the public face in trying to disseminate fact from fiction.

TessaExactly, newspapers used to be the outlets for truth.

NikitaAnd Twitter is very simple, only 140 characters. I think Trump has been successful at using Twitter because of this simplicity. He actually speaks like he tweets. His speeches and his tweets are indistinguishable.

CharlieWell, there’s no room to be cerebral on Twitter.

NikitaYes, but everyone else is trying to do that, not Trump. Twitter is the perfect platform for him.

Albane de RochebruneHave there been any proper Op-Eds written by him? Or in his name?

TessaNo, he doesn’t need to rely on the traditional media at all because he has Twitter to spread his ideas.

CharlieAlthough the most successful, the most re-tweeted tweets - not from Trump - are the ones that use 140 characters to relay a witty comment or observation. But again it’s who can make the most out of a very limited medium.

AlbaneBut that is a huge problem if wittiness becomes the master of information. Sometimes information is much more complicated than 140 characters and we shouldn’t have to rely on it being “witty” to get across.

NikitaThe whole point is that Trump is the perfect Twitter president. His followers appreciate how he speaks and how he tweets.

TessaThe other issue is that journalists are then reporting on his tweets. So now he is controlling the whole news cycle through his Twitter! So it’s not necessarily that people are reading his tweets but that now his tweets are becoming news. Almost 25% of verified accounts on Twitter belong to journalists.

NikitaI also read that 83% of the world leaders have Twitter.

AdamBut what number of those actually do their own tweeting?

NikitaYou can tell when a leader is writing their own tweets or not - if it is in their “voice”. There is actually a way of seeing if Trump has sent his own tweets or not by looking at the device from which the tweet has been sent. What is most interesting is when tweets that definitely sound like they have been written in his voice, some of his most divisive ones, were actually written and sent by a staffer!

TessaSo it is actually a purposeful messaging strategy. Rather than him just tweeting the first thing that comes to mind.

CharlieFrom a commercial point of view it is very interesting that Twitter hasn’t made any money. In fact, its haemorrhaging money. Is this an incredible idea that is not a bankable commodity? It hasn’t proven to be so yet.

TessaI feel like, in the way its interacting with mainstream media it has proven that it is a bankable commodity, or at least one that isn’t going anywhere. It has changed the way that media is consumed so irrevocably that it isn’t going to change back.

NikitaThis is really interesting because when social media became more and more popular, everyone was talking about how it was going to be the death knell for traditional media. But actually, what is suffering the most is Twitter itself. Part of the problem is that they do not have a steady revenue stream. They don’t have a very good advertising platform. On top of that it’s what you were saying earlier Tessa, the New York Times will report on a tweet that Trump wrote. Donald Trump’s use of Twitter has not actually lead to more people signing up for Twitter at all.

TessaIt’s lead to more people reading about Twitter.

CharlieAnd even in broadsheet newspapers, tweets are commonly being used as comments in press releases.

AdamSomething else to note is that people behave differently when they’re using social media. I have friends who behave very differently on social media than they would in a face to face environment. Often they’re more aggressive. Does this reflect the way they are in real life? If I was put in charge of the new candidates for political parties, the first thing I would say is delete all your tweets!

Charles AnglinI couldn’t agree more. I get in enough trouble saying things that aren’t written down.

CharlieWhat I think we need to remember is that Facebook was founded in 2004. We’re only 13 years into this grand experiment. This is striking when you look at how long traditional media has been in existence for. We’re in a whole new age where I think humanity is struggling to come to terms with, and control, a very new medium. Without sounding like a hippy, is this making us find out a bit about ourselves? Are we all basically a narcissistic, terrible species?

AdamI’m trying to get through one of these chats without mentioning the game Civilisation, but they go through the various eras and they call this one the ‘Information era’. An explosion of information.

CharlieExactly, it is no surprise that we’re struggling to come to terms with it. We are struggling to understand how it can be used for good. What are we supposed to do when the head of Facebook is coming out and saying ‘yeah we have a problem’.

TessaI guess it’s also about how much you can separate our social media from the internet more generally. Even though social media only came into our lives around ten years ago, I struggle to think of the internet without social media. Social media is now a platform through which the entirety of the internet is understood and spreads.

CharlieIn the 1970s and 80s if you were a journalist in Africa - and you saw something that wanted reporting - you would take a picture on your film camera, get the film developed, send it back to London and get it in the newspaper. Other than that, many wouldn’t know what was going on in vast swathes of the Continent. Now you could be in the most remote part of DRC and see something, take a picture and tweet it, it could go viral around the whole world in ten minutes. In a way it has helped journalism and the ability for journalists to tell stories. But at the same undermined them.

AlbaneBut it doesn’t respect the amount of time the brain takes to process information. Journalism requires verification. You have to think first.

AdamImmediacy is both an opportunity and a threat.

NikitaSo where does this lead us as people who work in communications?

CharlieI think what the New York Times, The Guardian etc. are doing is right. Persuading people that good quality journalism can be transferred onto these platforms. If you see what they’re trying to do on Facebook and Twitter at the moment, it’s like a sales pitch to say ‘we can be in this new world but with the quality journalism that’s existed for a long, long time’.

TessaBut who’s going to pay for it?

CharlieYes, that is a question only they can answer

NikitaAnd we can’t get rid of it.

CharlieTrue, but in my experience, a single high profile article or interview with a major news outlet will still have a much more significant effect than a thousand tweets. An editorial is still more powerful.

NikitaSo is Donald Trump’s twitter Presidency just a blip? We don’t need to think it’s the end of traditional media as we know it because no one can understand anything anymore. This is a sign of today’s times. In ten years-time we will be discussing something else. We don’t need to give Trump all the credit for this.

AdamExactly, his strategy wouldn’t work for most people.

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