Big online issues lost amid Twitterphobia

Thu, Jan 10, 2013, 00:00

In recent months, Ireland’s standing army of pundits, weary perhaps of circumnavigating the same five subjects in ever-decreasing circles, have occasionally turned their attention to the currently fashionable bogeyman of online social media and the internet. The results have not been pretty.

“So-called internet journalism is at a level equivalent to the Stone Age,” David Adams informed us with apparent confidence in his column on this page last week. “Its main consideration is attention-grabbing, not accuracy: ‘hits’ matter more than fact-checking.”

What this “internet journalism” actually was remained unclear. No examples were given of who was producing this stuff and how many of these stimulating “hits” they were getting for their trouble. In fact, the subject of the rest of the column appeared to be Twitter.

People who use Twitter know that it has very little to do with journalism, unless you’re a journalist. It’s certainly used by many journalists, but so are telephones, biros and umbrellas. If you’re a brain surgeon, then Twitter is likely to be about brain surgery. And if, like David Adams, you’re a fan of Liverpool FC, it’s an insight into the thoughts and recreational habits of that club’s fine squad of footballers. And Piers Morgan, apparently. Your choice.

It was clear that David had failed to grasp this rather basic fact. But that was fine, apparently, because he had been told by an “online media expert” that he was “someone who doesn’t know how to make the best use of Twitter”. He was delighted by this as “who would want to be considered as anything but inept in that sphere?”

I don’t propose to waste this valuable space by giving yet another potted apologia for social media, the internet or whatever else is inflaming the gout of this regiment of grumpy old men. If you’re interested in this subject you can find out about it yourself with ease.

But when yet another self-proclaimed proper journalist proudly trumpets his own ignorance of a given subject before proceeding to pontificate at length on that very same subject, one can’t help wondering what is going on. What hot flush has caused self-knowledge to desert him so dramatically that he can write this guff without reflecting for one moment on how fatuous it is?

When John Waters the very next day describes social media as “toxic and lawless”, one might be forgiven for thinking that The Irish Times had taken up arms against this whole “internet” thing.

In the dark forest of the “internet” itself, where conspiracy theories breed like rabbits on Viagra, there has been some speculation along those lines. Either that, or we must be engaged in deliberate “trolling”, an internet term for publishing deliberately infuriating commentary just to get more of those lovely “hits”.

Neither theory is true.

So why do so many commentators feel impelled to make such fools of themselves on this subject? Do they really lack the intellectual curiosity to engage meaningfully with the extraordinary revolution in communications, information and technology happening around them?

On chat show panels and newspaper opinion pages, including this one, a shrill keening sound can be heard. The sky is falling on our heads. Newfangled fads with absurd names are threatening the fabric of our civilisation. Apparently it would be for the best if we a) just ignored this stuff in the hope it’s a fad that will go away, or b) instituted some sort of punitive new regulatory system (because, obviously, that would be a really good use of public money at the moment).

For the many hundreds of thousands of people who use these communication systems daily for professional and personal purposes , and who actually understand their strengths and shortcomings, this apocalyptic talk seems laughable, but in a way it’s a symptom of the same failure of traditional journalistic standards which led to RTÉ’s presidential debate Twitter fiasco.

All this blathering might be funny if it didn’t fall so abysmally short of the standards of analysis we need as readers and citizens. Because very big questions do confront us. The digital communications revolution poses real and serious challenges to many traditional concepts that underpin our civic society and to long-cherished rights to privacy, personal integrity and protection of the young. It places huge power in the hands of a small number of corporations whose business models are based upon “monetising” you by exploiting your personal data.

These are all serious issues, but all we seem to get (with a couple of honourable exceptions) is wilful ignorance and cheap histrionics, often weirdly mirroring the very sins the dreaded “internet” is accused of. A few months ago, John Waters wrote that: “there is something about the internet that provokes in many users utterly out-of-kilter responses towards events and other people”.

Indeed there is.

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