‘People are talking’

Tom Ingram, staff

A recent article ran on the New York Times website with the headline “Possible Meteor Over California Has Social Media Abuzz.” CTV’s website ran a summary of Twitter reactions to Rob Ford’s remarks at Toronto City Hall last Thursday. Searching for “social media abuzz” yields hundreds of other examples. It seems that in recent years the press has become obsessed with social media, and this has led to the alarming trend of press outlets publishing social media roundups as if they were news.

Social media—a vague term for a collection of websites offering interactive online services to a general audience—is a place for informal conversation, an online venue for the comments that would otherwise be made around the office water cooler. The standard fare of Facebook posts is opinions about food or music, complaints about traffic or weather, and lowest-common-denominator political discussion. Not, in other words, the sort of thing a major news outlet should be reporting on.

The big difference between an online post and a spoken remark is that while the things said around the water cooler are forgotten as soon as the last echo has died off, things that are posted on the Internet are kept in near perpetuity. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter keep records of everything, although they aren’t always easy to access. Archives and search engines keep track of these things for their own purposes. Nothing is ephemeral on the Internet – not even things that probably should be.

In today’s world, where up-to-the-minute news is not only possible but demanded, news outlets are constantly starved for content and not terribly picky about what they publish. Since many people are excited by the prospect of having their opinion “reported” on, large news organizations are able to get by with the shockingly lazy tactic of using the online remarks of random people to fill space.

One obvious reason this is a problem is that it lowers the level of the discourse. While old-school reporting had many flaws, it focused on records, data, experts, publications, and people directly connected to an event, all combined into a coherent narrative by a journalist who was, at least theoretically, educated and competent. This new brand of techno-“journalism,” on the other hand, takes the hastily expressed opinions of random people, with no knowledge other than what the media has told them, and attempts to elevate them to the same status as informed, well-researched, and cautious reportage.

Perhaps more disturbing, however, is that it reframes the news. Look at that Times headline again: “Possible Meteor Over California Has Social Media Abuzz.” The story is not the meteor, which is the sentence’s subject, embedded in its noun phrase and taken as axiomatic. We might as well be talking about a sale on peanut butter or a war in Syria. The story is the social media reaction. What they are reacting to, exactly, is a secondary matter. In other words, the headline amounts to nothing more than “People are Talking on Twitter.”

People are always talking, so the only part of that statement that is even vaguely interesting is the bit about Twitter. We have thus successfully transformed a story about a meteor over California into one about the prevalence of social media in today’s crazy world. This style of reporting is not intellectually stimulating or informative. But it’s also dangerous. It takes the focus away from external events that may or may not be important, and bends it ever further towards ourselves.