By now, it’s become pretty obvious that Twitter can be an incredibly useful — if also somewhat flawed — source of real-time news during catastrophic events like the Boston bombings or the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school. But in most of those cases, Twitter is just one of hundreds of different media sources, all competing for attention. I think the network shows its real power as a media entity when traditional media is nowhere to be found — and that became abundantly obvious during two recent incidents: the demonstrations in Turkey and the filibuster of an anti-abortion bill in Texas.
The epic tale of Texas state senator Wendy Davis and her passionate stand against a proposed abortion bill is a classic example of a news story that didn’t really become obvious until it was well underway — so in a metaphorical sense at least, it was a little like a bomb going off somewhere — and it was also a story that was to some extent off the beaten path for news agencies. You might think that a state legislature would be covered like a blanket by traditional news sources, but in fact that’s rarely the case.
As Carl Franzen pointed out in a piece for The Verge, and media watcher Rachel Sklar also noted in a piece about the filibuster on Medium, many of the usual mainstream sources people would go to for real-time news — CNN and the other major broadcast networks, for example — had virtually nothing about the Texas legislature battle. And why would they? It was a typical bill being tabled through the afternoon and into the evening hours on a Tuesday. Who would have predicted that the story would explode in a way that gripped viewers and readers not just in Texas but across the U.S.?
In a post at Salon, writer Roxane Gay talked about how she experienced the filibuster as a news event, and how Twitter became a much more important — and relevant — source than anything else she could find. And that’s not just because there were plenty of people at the legislature tweeting about the event (including some local media sources such as Austin American-Statesman reporter Mike Ward, as Sklar noted in her piece) but also because of the communal feeling of involvement that a stream of Twitter news brings to such a phenomenon. Which traditional media outlets offer that? Very few.
“I cannot think of a significant event from the past three years I did not first learn about via Twitter [and] when these major news stories are breaking, there’s always a significant difference between what’s being shared via social media and what major news outlets are covering. That difference becomes more pronounced and more pathetic with each passing day.”
As it turned out, for the Davis filibuster, the only news source apart from Twitter was the YouTube channel of the Texas Tribune, a three-year-old non-profit media outlet that is only available online — and from a media analysis point of view, this story is also an excellent example of the benefits of having a quick-thinking entity like the Tribune that focuses exclusively on state news. One of the weaknesses of national networks like CNN and others is that they simply can’t move quickly enough when something unusual happens.
Twitter is citizen journalism in action
Twitter, however, has reporters everywhere — if by reporters you mean people who are on the scene of a news event and can report what is happening, and have that information transmitted instantly to thousands or even millions of people. In the most important sense, that is what we mean when we say “citizen journalism” (although I prefer the term Andy Carvin of NPR uses: “random acts of journalism”). And that is why I would argue that Twitter is one of the most important media companies in the world right now, even though CEO Dick Costolo continues to protest that it isn’t a media company at all.
We saw much the same phenomenon take place during the recent demonstrations in Turkey, which began with just a few disgruntled protesters but quickly became a national and international story of repression — again, a story that may have snuck up on many of the traditional media who are supposed to cover such things. In Turkey, however, there’s an additional aggravating factor: namely, a media industry that is widely seen as beholden to the government and therefore unlikely to question it. As I noted in a recent post, that combination of factors made Twitter a crucial news source about the event for days.
While Twitter may not see itself as a media entity — or may not want to promote itself as such, for fear of irritating its potential partners — the reality is that it is often the only media outlet that matters, because it can do two things that even large mainstream media players aren’t all that good at: it can marshall and distribute coverage by eyewitnesses almost instantly, and it can connect people emotionally to a news event in an incredibly powerful way.
If you are in the media business, that is what your competition consists of. How you adapt to that — or make it work for you rather than against you — is probably the most important question you have to face right now.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen