Twits

Either CNN mangles, or someone just said something funny. About the swine flu being talked about a lot where people talk a lot about things talked about:

Some observers say Twitter — a micro-blogging site where users post 140-character messages — has become a hotbed of unnecessary hype and misinformation about the outbreak, which is thought to have claimed more than 100 lives in Mexico.

“This is a good example of why [Twitter is] headed in that wrong direction, because it’s just propagating fear amongst people as opposed to seeking actual solutions or key information,” said Brennon Slattery, a contributing writer for PC World. “The swine flu thing came really at the crux of a media revolution.”

[…]

Slattery, the PC World writer, said he generally was excited about Twitter until recently. Now he finds the site to be “an incredibly unreliable source of information.”

So, Twitter is “an incredibly unreliable source of information”.

When has Twitter even pretended to be a reliable source of information? Socialization, yes, conversation, yes, personal updates, lies and random snips of stuff, yes, but a reliable source of information? Not a part of the idea. It’s like the world around it: a few rational voices, a whole lot of screaming semi-baboon lunatics.

If you ask me (why doesn’t anyone ask?), it’s silly to even suggest Twitter should be a Wikipedia, or a CNN substitute. It’s much more like a crowded room full of chattering people. For an example, a while ago, when Stephen Hawking was hospitalized, I kept an eye on the Twitter search page for “stephen hawking”: not because I was inclined to believe any random stranger, but because it was the equivalent of looking for the disheveled guy that runs into the room, screaming “The Daily says Hitler is dead!”

Twitter is, generally speaking, no reliable source of information (and it’s both unrealistic and missing the point to wish it was), but it can be a pretty good way to direct yourself to actual reliable sources as they pop up. In the Hawking case, I saw that no-one posted (tweeted?) “ZOMG Stephen Hawking dead => [link to news site]”, so Steve most probably was still alive; that’s a way Twitter can be a source of very reliable information. Not a newspaper, but the guy that runs in waving a linky copy of the paper, screaming the still-wet headline at the top of his lungs.

If he’s just screaming and waving, well, no such authority or reliability. (That’s “original research” in Wikipedia-speak.)

The “key information” is on Twitter, or at least linked to on Twitter, if you are interested in it and just bother to look for it; but the ugly truth is that most people are gullible, er, twits. It’s no fault of Twitter and nothing new that people tend to be uncritical and prone to hysteria. That’s where this little thing called skepticism should come in… and if it doesn’t, it’s no problem of Twitter’s.

As for Twitter “not seeking solutions” — well, I kindly note that WordPress hasn’t cured AIDS yet, either. And in a newsflash, your local bar isn’t actually “seeking actual solutions or key information” to the much-talked-about fire on the east side of the town either! There are places for jawing and rumor, and places for reliable news and medical advice. Expecting Twitter to consistently be the latter is silly. And expecting the whole of Twitter to be what the best parts of it — or the worst parts — are is even sillier.

Read the quote above and replace “Twitter” with “the coffee-houses of New York” to see what I mean. Partly true, and wholly beside the point.

But the silliness continues:

Unofficial swine flu information on Twitter may lead people to unwise decisions, said Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute and a blogger on ForeignPolicy.com.

For example, some Twitter users told their followers to stop eating pork, he said. Health officials have not advised that precaution.

Well, thanks for stating the blindingly obvious. Any information can lead a gullible fella into unwise decisions. You shouldn’t trust strangers. Twitter is the least of your problems if you believe all you hear. It’s funny how CNN can treat this one instance of old-fashioned rumor-mongering as something big and important — but then again, though the message is old, the means are something new and shiny!

Also, their headline for this? “Swine flu creates controversy on Twitter”.

Aaargh. Pox on you, manufacturers of false controversy! Pox on you! A pox!

What controversy is this? The common people echoing their thoughts, repeating rumors, passing on ill-considered pieces of advice, voicing personal opinions, just saying they’re afraid, or joking or even lying to bait the gullible or the easily scared — nothing new. Nothing dramatic. Nothing that needs fixing.

As to the fact that a whopping two percent of tweets are about the swine flu — well, it would not surprise me if two percent of all conversation these days was about it. Nothing scary in that fact. Nothing unusual in people jawing and rumor-mongering, without pretense of expertise or authority. Nothing different from the overheard chatter at your local coffee shop, or the cooler coffeehour conference at work. Listener (or reader) beware, that’s all.

The chaos is the charm of it. Okay?

* * *

Personal note: I don’t twitter… yet. Maybe I’ll get an account one day, see how that works out. Though of course I cannot hope to top the genius of others. (No sarcasm. Seriously, that is brilliant. Useless, gross… and brilliant.)

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