God bless the Pew Research Center for doing actual research on things that most bloggers just write as fact-based on their friends’ social media activity.
It put out an interesting report this week about the Twittersphere, and how it doesn’t particularly reflect reality. Pew conducted a year-long study comparing polling numbers to the Twitter consensus when it came to eight major news events. Most of these were political events relevant to the election.
The headline says that Twitter was frequently “at odds” with overall public opinion, but I think the problem is more nuanced: The more popular Twitter becomes, the more it slowly destroys the very idea that there is a single, consensus of public opinion.
In most cases Pew follows, Twitter was more liberal, although in some it was decidedly more conservative. The takeaway — which makes sense if you’ve ever read any user-generated content — seems to be that passion and negativity come out in people’s Tweets, regardless of their political affiliation. Like a Quaker worship service, they are moved to speak when they are moved.
The results prove that Twitter won’t give you a mirror image of how Americans think and feel — at least about politics. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t mirror aspects of reality, particularly how our reality is getting changed by social media and other services like Twitter.
But beyond these nuances, there’s one big Twitter reality that Pew doesn’t take into account: There’s not really one Twitter-sphere. There are as many Twitterspheres as there are people using it, because everyone has a totally distinct feed. I’m not sure how relevant the macro, overarching Twittersphere actually is because no one actually looks at that one. People see their own self-curated Twittersphere. For evidence on this, look at the trending topics at any given time. If you are like me, most of them are nowhere to be found in your actual feed.
Put another way: The same thing that made the site so technically challenging in its early “Fail Whale” days, continues to make it so distinct as any sort of media property today. It was hard to technically serve up as many iterations of the site as there were users from a standing start. Today, the technical challenge has been nailed, but it means there really is no single Twitter stream, feed, consensus or sphere. And as it becomes the way more and more people find and consume news, the ramifications of that are worth considering. That means Twitter actually reflects reality even less that Pew suggests.
Twitter actually reflects reality less, because we’ve self-selected who we follow by affinity group. So while there are more news sources broadcasting on Twitter, you are overly curating the ones you want to see to suit the reality you like. Twitter is increasingly becoming like a multi-splintered Fox News — a place where you go to get information you agree with. That makes it either the most flawed or most perfect news source, depending on your point of view.
Every time I say something too divisive, I lose followers who disagree with me and gain followers who agree with me. Whether it’s about baseball or politics or even whether we’re in a venture capital bubble. And when someone annoys me, I block or unfollow them. They may annoy me, because they’re a troll or they may annoy me because, say, they are opposed to gun control and I just don’t feel like hearing their point of view on something I know I believe.
Twitter is like a more concentrated firehose of the blogosphere — there’s so much of it, it’s less about finding new things you’d like to read and more about eliminating the things you don’t need. Points of view you don’t agree with are the first to go.
Unlike a world where the media was controlled by gatekeepers, and you couldn’t control what NPR or the evening news or the daily paper focused on, Twitter allows you to constantly re-adjust the dials. There’s no longer an absolute idea of a list of things you (as a member of the general public) need to know, there’s a list of things that you (the individual with this set of passions and beliefs) need to know. You could live in an entire reality where you believe fervently that Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in another country and only see sources and opinion leaders that validate that. For you, that could be the consensus of your Twittersphere.
I don’t think people are intentionally being closed-minded. It’s something that creeps up on you as you use the service. I’m guilty of this too. My Twitter feed has slowly become overly dialed to tech and startup news. So now when big national or political news happens, I’m frequently the last to know. Whole huge news events can happen, and because I think Twitter will keep me informed, and I no longer read a daily paper, commute to NPR, or watch TV news, I can literally not hear a word about things that are actually being talked about to death in other circles. I’m stunned that I actually knew Hugo Chavez died. Typically I find things out days later when Paul Carr says, “How did you not hear about this??” And the answer is typically because I relied on Twitter to tell me, and it didn’t. But I can tell you every in-and-out of the things that I’ve determined are important to me.
On a day-to-day basis, this makes my life efficient. But it’s becoming clear that relying on Twitter for news is making me, well, an uninformed idiot. It’s gotten extreme enough, that I’ve considered resubscribing to a print daily paper to make sure I’m forcibly injecting a diet of un-Sarah-Lacy-curated news into my life. That’s certainly a ramification of Twitter I never considered a few years ago: An actual yearning for East Coast media elite gatekeepers telling me what I need to know.
I’m embarrassed to admit all of this, but hey, at least I’m admitting I have a problem. If Twitter continues to grow as the de facto personalized news engine of choice, we may wind up living in our own “fair and balanced” worlds that bear no resemblance to one another