Accuracy in Media

Jill Abramson, the new executive editor of The New york Times, jumped on the social media bandwagon by joining Twitter this week, but started off slowly with just a handful of tweets.

Since she started tweeting on Thursday, Abramson has only communicated with the Twitterverse six times and she hasn’t said anything very interesting, making me wonder if she even understands how Twitter really works.

Yet she has managed to attract over 3,800 followers and I’m sure will add thousands more as she learns how to better use the service.

This could be because Abramson is not much of a techie, but also may be rooted in the fact that her predecessor, Bill Keller, didn’t like social media and never managed to use it to the paper’s advantage.

Back in May Keller wrote a column expressing his misgivings about social media, which showed his complete lack of understanding for the medium:

My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.

I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely “social.” There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter. Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant. Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!

As a kind of masochistic experiment, the other day I tweeted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” It produced a few flashes of wit (“Give a little credit to our public schools!”); a couple of earnestly obvious points (“Depends who you follow”); some understandable speculation that my account had been hacked by a troll; a message from my wife (“I don’t know if Twitter makes you stupid, but it’s making you late for dinner. Come home!”); and an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah (“Um, wrong.” “Nuh-uh!!”). Almost everyone who had anything profound to say in response to my little provocation chose to say it outside Twitter. In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others’ opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.

Keller’s evaluation of social media is far too simplistic and ignores the powerful effect that it has had on building communities and brands, as well as the direct effect it has had on the news business, which I suspect is the real reason that he hated it so much. It was destroying his business model and he wasn’t ready or willing to adapt.

That and his very public hatred for the Huffington Post led to his resignation as executive editor this month and the quick naming of Abramson as his successor.

Keller may have thought that “Twitter is stupid” and don’t for a minute think he was just conducting an experiment but Abramson would be smart to do just the opposite of Keller when it comes to using social media.

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