Guest post: attempts to professionalise tweeting are misguided
My newsroom colleague John Fleming has written a bracingly contrarian view on Twitter and the professional media. Here it is:
The tweeting world is a bubbling, talking soup. Hear it simmering away. Dip in your ladle to immense delight but also at great peril. Tweeting is a medium of social communication fruitful for all sorts of activity: marketers gauging tastes, protesters sparking revolution and journalists “reporting”. But the semantics of “social media” are uneasy – the term has been applied to map emergent areas of communication that mutate as soon as we attempt their topology. To attempt to professionalise such social media may be foolhardy.
RTE’s Frontline programme on the presidential candidates appears to have given us the tweet that will be heard throughout history. The use of this mass-addressed instant texting mechanism as a media informant has reached an apotheosis. Effectively anonymous, a single tweet helped shape opinion, magnified through its use in the second medium of television. Double whammy. Pop, we have known for a long time, will eat itself.
The Frontline debate debacle has resulted in calls for an inquiry into the use of tweets and much focus on the need for their real-time, live-on-air authentication. Implicitly, the chapter illustrates the need for guidelines for the use of tweets by journalists of all media.
Analogies have their use. Here is one: people talk in bars and cafes, on street corners and on the telephone. Much of what they say is true, much is false. It is profane, factual, scandalous, offensive and entertaining. It is locked into its context, even – and perhaps especially – by the most skilled communicators. Imagine a roving device, a Jules Verne electronic ear, could eavesdrop on all this talk. It would be amused, wonderstruck, interested or perhaps insulted. If that roving ear belonged to a broadcast researcher or print journalist, it is unlikely the eavesdropped result would be transmitted or written up without clarification.
For, at best, tweeting is rich, vibrant gossip. It drives as lead vehicle in the parade of social media. It is an infinite megaphone, a chariot for opinionated ego. It is no surprise journalists have been among the communicative hordes to embrace tweeting – for work and for pleasure. Like talk, email and telephone calls, it unavoidably serves as a vent for opinion and as a barometer of reaction: “What’s up? I’ll bloody tell you what’s up.”
Tweeting can be a fine media for quick-fire reaction and for instant provocation. It is also an arena of stultifyingly banal and witless statements. And it can be deadly boring, its stock in trade including much by way of “I am going to make another omelette” and “I am still listening to the Velvet Underground”.
The one thing tweeting definitely is not is a professional medium – its nature is chaos not order. It is one of the social media, remember? That means human beings communicating badly. Attempts to professionalise tweeting are misguided. They lead inexorably to a second debate over how employees identified with a firm (a carpet showroom, a website, a PR agency, a newspaper) use tweets. When do your opinions cease to be safely allied to those of your employer? If you use the f-word in a tweet, are you damaging a corporate image or merely speaking socially to your mates as you see fit? As a professional communicator, do you accept your employer having a say in how you communicate in the evenings or at the weekends? Does your employer agree with your stance on omelettes or the Velvet Underground? When a schoolboy sprays graffiti on a wall outside of school hours, how much does the issue depend on whether he was wearing his school uniform or not?
As RTE is discovering, tweeting is a communication device for which the user manual is still evolving.