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Dec 2, 2010

Note to The Australian: Twitter is not a newspaper

When Oz editor Chris Mitchell complains that Julie Posetti didn’t contact him to get his side of the story before tweeting, he completely misses the point.

Stilgherrian — Technology writer and broadcaster


Technology writer and broadcaster

Look, I don’t want to have a go at The Australian. Really. I don’t. But with Posetti-Twittergate, and then Geoff Elliott having a go at Jonathan Powles for his tweet that echoed the  #iamspartacus thing with Paul Chambers, one thing seems certain. The newspaper doesn’t understand that Twitter is not a newspaper.

The folks at The Oz are not alone. Sadly, there’s still plenty of established media outlets just like them — seemingly insistent on defining journalism in terms of their specific workflows that produce their specific media outputs. They look at Twitter, see that it’s different, and reckon it’s wrong because… it’s different. Well, der.

A newspaper’s daily production workflow produces final, fixed news stories, frozen into ink on paper forever and ever amen. Twitter is a real-time medium. Twitter is a conversation. Like any conversation, it’s full of stumbles, mis-speakings and corrections. Through dialogue, some sort of shared truth emerges.

Twitter’s a lot like talkback radio, I reckon. Random callers — Quelle horreur! Untrusted anonymous sources! — go on air and make claims. Others get to refute them. The producer phones authoritative sources for comment. Through dialog, some sort of shared truth emerges. Eventually. Or not.

On talkback radio, on Twitter, we get to hear and see the sausages of truth being made. And it’s not pretty.

So when Oz editor Chris Mitchell complains that Julie Posetti didn’t contact him to get his side of the story before tweeting, he completely misses the point.

Posetti was tweeting about what was happening, live, in front of her. Mitchell could have joined the conversation any time he liked. Even if he didn’t want to dirty his paws by using his own Twitter account, I’m willing to bet that if he’d emailed Posetti — or gotten @overingtonc to be his cut-out again — she’d have tweeted his comments on his behalf.

Now as Jonathan Holmes has written, whether Posetti’s tweets were accurate is still an open question. As Guy Rundle reminded us yesterday, Twitter is still “a form of publishing, not post-legal freeware pixiedust”. Whatever the medium, defamation is defamation. But that’s another issue.

What interests me is that Mitchell chose not to join the conversation where the conversation was happening. I suspect that’s because to do so would be tacit acknowledgement of Twitter’s legitimacy as a medium. We wouldn’t want that.

Geoff Elliott, meanwhile, is concerned that some jokes on Twitter are mock threats, such as Powles’ tweet, “Crap! Mitchell is sueing [sic] @julieposetti! The Oz has a week to get its sh-t together or I’m blowing the place sky-high. #twitdef #iamspartacus.”

“I suggest that it is completely inappropriate for an ANU academic in the college of law to be even cracking jokes like that,” wrote Elliott. “Call me old fashioned…”

Not old-fashioned, but certainly out of touch with Twitter. Even if Elliott didn’t know that “blowing the place sky-high” was a reference to the Chambers case — but I’m sure he did, because his paper had already run at least two stories about it — the hashtag #iamspartacus should have at least aroused curiosity. For anyone familiar with Twitter, it’s a clear sign that something more subtle is happening, beyond the tweet’s literal meaning. I’d even contend that #iamspartcus was so widespread — even Elliott describes the Chambers case as a cause célèbre — that it’s “common knowledge”.

Again, Twitter is not a newspaper. It’s a communications medium. Anyone can use it any way they like. Like cracking a joke. Even journalists can use Twitter for things other than journalism.

Like getting into fights.

Elliott is a quiet voice on Twitter. Mitchell isn’t there at all, as far as I know. So it was left to Oz media writer Sally Jackson to face the braying mob this week — and she was curiously defensive.

Scroll back through Jackson’s Twitter feed and you’ll you’ll see her calling critics “dill” and “troll” and “Twitter’s unfortunate bullymob element”. In fairness, she was hit with hard criticism. But as Andrew Elder noted, for a media expert Jackson’s responses were “astonishingly inept”.

“She won’t participate in a debate that she can’t frame. Criticism that addresses the issue is lumped in with ad-hominem attacks, so that any criticism of her article is a personal attack upon her. That’s why reasonable challenges are met with shrieks like “nasty”, “troll” etc. Jackson’s responses remind me of people who flap their arms wildly when set upon by flying insects: this doesn’t actually repel the insects or even discourage them much, it only gets the person upset, diminishes their dignity and makes further attacks more likely rather than less.”

So how come The Australian doesn’t get it?

British blogger Martin Weller seems to have the answer, in this post, cited by John Naughton in The Observer under the catchy headline, “Oh you naughty tweeters, you’ve upset the establishment.”

Weller reckons that media outlets – as well as politicians, the police, prosecutors and judges — are part of “a conspiracy of sentiment”, all acting from the same unspoken emotional base. “This can be summarised as: they hate you,” he wrote.

“They hate that you undermine their carefully crafted messages and turn them into jokes. They hate that you are forming new methods of entertainment that they don’t understand. They hate that you can organise yourselves without them knowing about it. They hate that power has been democratised. They hate that you get at content for free. They hate it, hate it, hate it. So when the opportunity arises to stamp on one of you snivelling social media types, they grasp it with both hands.”

My guess is there’s still a lot more hate to come.

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14 thoughts on “Note to The Australian: Twitter is not a newspaper

  1. Pete from Sydney

    Hey they don’t hate you they may dislike you, but they don’t hate you, most think twitter is almost always irrelevant dross, generally a conversation about themselves…

    Martin Weller needs to get a grip on something other than his phone

  2. kuke

    Yes, that paragraph from Martin Weller is perhaps one of the best on the topic.

  3. Pete from Sydney


  4. Benno Rice

    @Pete: I actually think that that view of Twitter feeds in to the hatred that outfits like The Australian have for the medium. At first glance it seems like a large pile of irrelevant rubbish so when it turns around and collectively dismantles and/or mocks your carefully built narrative it’s an even larger slap in the face than it would otherwise be.

  5. Jim Reiher

    Old media hates new media. It intimidates them. they cant control what is said. They cant edit it to reflect conservative values, and they hate the possibility that people who twitter, also use other electronic media and just maybe DONT BUY NEWSPAPERS any more.

    Newspapers will become old school sooner not later. There are much more effective ways (with less control, and less editing, and less bias towards old conservative values – oh and less profits for the billionaire owners of old media) to communicate these days.

  6. klewso

    “Tough Twitties”!
    It seems they see Twitter as competition? And on content (both theirs and Twitter’s), with the personal spin of it’s contributors, I suppose they do have a point!
    The line between “journalism” and “op-ed hackery” has been so blurred – but which institution did so much for that outcome? Who paid it’s employees to do it? Who made it a “profession”? Who “Limited News”?

  7. klewso

    “They” probably hate the fact that they can’t control the agenda, most of all – why they hate the likes of Wikileaks so vehemently – it’s going to be harder to get away with their lies, obfuscation and fudging like the good old days.

  8. Ronnie

    This is what Twitter will look like after #twitdef:

  9. Daniel

    Reminder that more people use and read Twitter than have ever read The Australian. Hahahahahahahahahahaha

  10. Daniel

    More people wanna read about what Stephen Fry had for breakfast than want to read Imre Salusinszky’s latest barfpiece about some boring tripe nobody cares about. Owned, Murdoch…..just owned.