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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 16, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    Guest post: attempts to professionalise tweeting are misguided

    Hugh Linehan

    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.


    • I tend to agree, but I think you are underestimating the power of this new medium. As I’ve said over on my own blog (http://ciaranmcmahon.ie/?p=429), while the user manual for twitter is still evolving, and consequently how tv and print refer to it, it will be twitter which passes judgment on that manual, not traditional media.

      There’s also no amount of regulation of the use of social media in tv and elsewhere that will prevent such a sophisticated campaign of disinformation succeeding again. Twitter will win.

    • Alan Ryan says:

      Judging social medias relevance on a mistake, made by bad unverified research, is somewhat misguided.

    • JOD says:

      Still it was a bit of an Ems telegram for Mr Gallagher could I even venture, given his em em em stuttering attempts to rationalise and answer the ”charges” being put to him (being deeply involved with FF/being a party bagman) could call it the Bad Ems Tweet.

    • M says:

      Does the headline reflect your argument?

      If so, who has suggested professionalising tweeting in the media, actually what does professionalising tweeting mean, by your definition? Ensuring that tweeting is… done by professionals? I don’t really understand your point to be perfectly straight.

      The whole Frontline tweetgate scandal is a misnomer. If you get a phonecall from someone claiming to be a Sinn Fein spokeman do you check it with a known Sinn Fein spokesman? Of course. It was an old media fuck up done over the internet.

    • Michael Walsh says:

      Hi John,

      I’m no great Twitter fan – but RTE were just completely unprofessional.

      Posting a tweet is the electronic equivalent of sending an SMS text which is globally readable.

      How poor is RTE’s journalistic ethos that they felt comfortable to run with this?

      I personally think they had an agenda – and the use of a social media tool was a nice camouflage.

      So it’s cock-up or conspiracy.

      At least the conspiracy allows them to look intelligent, the cock-up simply makes them look like a bunch of digital illiterates who shouldn’t be let near a news media outlet – old or new.

    • Simon Oliver says:

      The headline is indeed misleading. Tweeting is social and economic intercourse: it is by definition both social and professional. The point is that people making omelettes and listening to Bob Dylan are communicating with like-minded ‘friends’. It’s only when they are using their ‘professional’ twitter account does the tweet become ambiguous.

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