There have been a couple of really interesting stories in the press recently both about Twitter and what they both have in common is a complete failure by "the establishment" to understand how the resource (and by implication social media in general) actually works.
Earlier in the week Paul Chambers lost an appeal against his conviction for threatening to blow up an airport in a tweet that he posted in a moment of annoyance. Unbelievably the judge felt that his tweets contained menace and that Chambers must have known that it would be taken seriously. The judge in question said the tweet was "menacing and its content obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed." This is to entirely ignore the context within which the "threat" was made. If the threat had been made in a telephone call to the police I would have agreed with what she said. However if the threat had been made in a pub and I overheard somebody chatting to his mates I would take the threat and in entirely different way. Any reasonable person who used Twitter would understand that the tweet was sent in a moment of frustration and was not to be taken literally. That is how those of us that use this resource understand it. We are familiar with the way in which this type of communication takes place.
Twitter is a communication tool and it's one that can be used in many different ways; for social chitchat, as a news resource, for general information, for requesting, seeking, and answering questions and so on. Unless the case was heard by a judge who understood the purpose of the resource and the ways in which we understand there is absolutely no way possible the judge could fully appreciate this. Consequently that specific judge should have either refused to take the appeal or she should have asked for expert witnesses to explain the resource to her in much more detail.
We now come to another situation in which once again somebody who writes on Twitter is being paraded before society as somebody who is evil or wicked. I am in this instance referring to a civil servant by the name of Sarah Baskerville who tweets in a private capacity about the things that she is involved with, including her job. Now, one could argue that if you start referring to what's happening in your job you are opening yourself up to a world of trouble, and I wouldn't disagree with that for a moment. However, it is at least possible, and perhaps likely, the Sarah Baskerville will lose her job as a result of what she is tweeting in a private capacity. That's the first issue. The second issue is the way in which this has been treated by the press. This is the thing I find particularly interesting. Yesterday the Daily Mail wrote a vitriolic piecein which she was attacked personally in a language that only the gutter press can manage in a way that they do. Today the Independent on Sunday picked up the Daily Mail story and ran with it themselves. However they didn't have anything extra to add and they simply continued the attack. One does have to wonder if a middle ranking civil servant actually deserves the attention she has unwittingly achieved. I don't think that she does and I think what's actually happening here is that she is the stick that the press is using to attempt to beat Twitter and social media in general.
It seems quite clear to me that the traditional and established press are deeply threatened by the rise of social media resources and the way in which everybody can be their own journalist. One of the things that interests me on the courses that I run is that quite often people say that they don't think that they can trust the information that they find on Twitter, but they can trust the information that they find in the press. Clearly this is a nonsensical state of matters, and we only have to look at the recent case of, surprise, surprise the Daily Mail in which one of their reporters wrote a piece about the new iPhone based on a fake Twitter account. Not only are judges unable to understand the role and the value of Twitter, it seems that journalists are unable to do so either. It is no surprise therefore that of course they are going to attack the results at any and every possible opportunity.
Moreover, news is becoming available on social networking and social media sites including Twitter much more quickly than the traditional press are able to find and report it for themselves. I am reminded of the post that I wrote earlier this year which was about the earthquake that took place in Mexico and California. Within the space of 2 minutes there were 132,000 tweets, and it still took over 10 minutes for the BBC, Sky News, CNN and other major news agencies to catch up with the story. These resources are now regularly showing up old-style news and journalism as out of date and behind the times. It should therefore come as no surprise that they will attack Twitter, Facebook and any other resource whenever they possibly can. As readers and as information professionals I do not believe that we are in a position to regard the news as anything other than a very biased source when it comes to reporting anything in this area. Furthermore, if we as information professionals are keen on the use of these tools and wish to use them as often and as well as we possibly can do they are not going to be very keen on us either!
Nonetheless I believe that it is important that we use these tools because they are becoming at least as good, if not significantly better than the traditional reporting mechanisms that we have had to use up until now. While of course I'm not advocating that libraries should not stock, offer, promote, and use newspapers and so on when we come to finding out information for our users I believe that we need to start taking social media reporting much more seriously. We all need to know how to search Twitter and Facebook for example to get the information that we require. We need to make better and more use of tools such as the Google Timeline resource to narrow down the information we require to specific time periods. When we need information about what is happening in the world now, and by "now" I mean within the last few seconds to the last few minutes perhaps it is time to start considering using the BBC etc as a secondary resource, which when it can catch up with the news is admittedly, able to give us more information then we will get in a single 140 characters.
Should we trust one tweet? I think the answer to that depends on who was doing the tweeting, and as information professionals we need to evaluate these tools and encourage our users to do the same thing. Certainly, sometimes I would trust a single tweet if I know who wrote it, but if I didn't I wouldn't necessarily ignore it but I would seek further corroboration either in my Twitter time stream or elsewhere. However the fact that you can get 132,000 tweets within 2 min on a single event does make me much more likely to believe that the event is taking place and to be able to get a variety of attitudes towards it, then I will be to believe in a second rate piece produced by a newspaper, be it the Daily Mail or sadly the Independent on Sunday.