Journalists, if you are going to spout off about Twitter, I beg you: Do some research. This has occurred to me frequently since Twitter hit the big time earlier this year, mostly because there have been frequent glaring errors on the part of "mainstream" journalists who write precious little articles about the microblogging service. On yesterday's Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz hosted CNN's Rick Sanchez -- an enthusiastic Twitter user and evangelist -- and CBS sports columnist Gregg Doyel to discuss the question, "Too Much Twitter?" I wasn't sure what Doyel's qualification was here, but it soon became clear: He was one of those people who had loudly dissed Twitter in print, without actually bothering to actually understand it.
You know the type -- think Maureen Dowd saying to Biz Stone, "Did you know you were designing a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls?" (At this point, prominent Twitter users included Senator Claire McCaskill, Senator John McCain, and Dowd's colleague on the op-ed page, Nicholas Kristof.) In this case, Doyel sputtered something about how "Twitter is the teeny bopperification of America, the dumbification of America," using the text-speak shorthand "LOL" to prove his point. Then he complained that there were "too many conversations going on in the world" -- which indicated a lack of familiarity with Twitter's "unfollow" option -- and advised that we "cut out all these corporate Christmas cards of communications which is all Twitter is." Huh? Which is it? Is Twitter teeny-bopperification or corporate Christmas cards? And by the way, care to cite any example or statistic to back up your claim? Even one?
"You can't possibly hear everything, so let's just listen to nothing and play Sudoku all day long," said Doyel, proving that the dumbification of America clearly started with him. He went on to loudly assert some other stuff that he failed to substantiate in the least.
What was amazing was the absence of any discussion about Twitter as a real-time communication tool, brought into sharp relief by the incredible events in Iran, still unfolding at the time of Sunday's broadcast. Sanchez mentioned it briefly, saying that Twitter gave him as much information about Iran as he would have learned from "my network, the BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post combined" -- but then Kurtz asked Doyel about journalists on Twitter, and he used the opportunity to say something uninformed yet again. (At no point did Doyel indicated that he was aware of Twitter's role in reporting information from Tehran.) Gawker's Cajun Boy shared my incredulity, calling it an "utterly useless but incredibly ironic debate over Twitter's relevance."
Just to be fair, I searched out Doyel's initial column on Twitter to see if he'd had anything worthwhile to say there, and to his credit he did seem to have looked at a few sports-related Twitter accounts. But his protests about how, "Hey, I'm not a crank, I get blogging!" seemed to indicate that he didn't understand that Twitter was a micro-blogging site -- same thing, just less of it, with greater interactive functionality. (He went on to describe Facebook and MySpace as "the impossibly impersonal Internet version of the corporate Christmas card" -- same phrase he used on Reliable Sources about Twitter -- which indicated that he did not understand his own column.)
But here's the real reason you know he has no clue: "But Shaquille O'Neal on Twitter? Makes no sense at all." Um. Dude, are you not a sports guy? If you don't get why tracking The Real Shaq would be appealing to sports fans -- never mind the rest of us! -- then maybe you're in the wrong line of work.
Judging by Doyel's column and appearance on Reliable Sources, here's my guess at the #1 reason why a fan would want to read an athlete's Twitter feed directly: To filter out idiot sports reporters like Doyel.
Here's another tip for journos writing about Twitter: It isn't new, it's just new to you. It existed before Ashton Kutcher joined in January, before David Gregory joined in February and before Oprah sent everyone into paroxysms of excitement by joining in April.
That's why I got annoyed a few weeks ago reading the AP's headline about Sockington, the Twitter cat: "Sockington: Twitter's Latest Star A Microblogging Cat." Really? Twitter's latest star? That's funny, because I remember Sockington being a hit at ROFLThing in January. And getting a ridiculous number of nominations for the Shorty Awards in February (he didn't win but he certainly made a dent).
Wait a second -- Sockington only had 10,000 followers at ROFLThing! That's not a star! Ashton has 1 million! Here I am playing the part of clueless journalist new to Twitter. Now I am playing the part of the Internet: O RLY? Let's not forget how different Twitter was back then (remember, kids, Internet time runs at warp speed). The numbers were smaller, before the media-on-Twitter explosion and before the celeb-on-Twitter explosion. Ten thousand followers was a pretty big deal.
But wait, there's more! Sockington's 10K was even more impressive because it represented a doubling from just two weeks before.
Still not impressed? Okay, how's this: On April 17th, when Oprah joined Twitter, she got 150,000 followers instantly. How many followers did Sockington have at that time? More than double that -- over 350,000.
My point -- and I do have one -- is that Sockington was not "Twitter's latest star." That is a flat-out factual error, a misrepresentation that betrays a lack of understanding of Twitter's history. (That would be a history of months.) It's not hard to check this stuff -- hello, Twitterholic! -- but way too many journalists just don't.
Final pet peeve: Alessandra Stanley. This is actually not about the error in her Twitter column back in February (David Gregory was actually not an "early Twitter enthusiast." His first tweet was on Feb. 11, 2009. Twitter launched in March 2006. Sheesh.) It's about her gall in calling out David Shuster for following someone back:
David Shuster, the host of "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" on MSNBC, is so eager to interact with potential viewers that he contacted a fictional character who had been created to monitor Twitter anonymously. "Hi, maria troffa (matroffa), David Shuster (Shuster1600) has requested to follow your updates on Twitter!" (There are no updates: that Maria Troffa doesn't exist.)
Not only is this a totally scummy move, but it betrays -- once again -- her basic lack of understanding of her subject. There is no positive duty on David Shuster's part to verify that an actual person named "Maria Troffa" exists. That "person" may not exist under that name, but somebody activated a Twitter account with that handle, and followed David Shuster with it. So the character may be fictional, but the Twitter account sure isn't. It's here, with protected updates, following 21 people including Shuster, Gregory, Norah O'Donnell, George Stephanopoulos, Jimmy Fallon and NYT colleagues Nick Kristof and Virginia Heffernan. (21 people? She followed 21 people in order to get up to speed on journalists on Twitter? Wow. Thorough.)
So, knowing all that, let's reread her statement, shall we? Doesn't seem quite accurate, does it? Not the follow part, her characterization of Shuster's eagerness. She said he was "so eager to interact with potential viewers that he contacted a fictional character." But how can that be a measure of his eagerness when it was her fraud? It can't be. That's almost worse than not bothering to fact-check about Gregory; that's willful misrepresentation. And you're the one fretting about journalism?
Twitter may have a cute-sounding name, but it exists, it generates a ton of content, it implicates all types of people, and it has nuances that are important to get right. Hopefully, its careless rendering by sloppy journalists won't lead to the dumbification of America.