the myth of the peoples media

This week, a British journalist had his Twitter account suspended over tweets about NBC's coverage of the Olympics.

This week, a British journalist had his Twitter account suspended over tweets about NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. Miffed that the network had withheld live coverage of the opening ceremonies in London from American viewers, Guy Adams, Los Angeles correspondent for the Independent, went on something of a tweeting rampage.

Among Adams’ comments were such goodies as, “NBC are utter, utter bastards”, and “Gary Zenkel, (NBC Olympics chief) moronic exec behind the time delay, shd be fired.” In his final tweet before being cut off, he suggested that other disgruntled twits, or tweeters, or whatever they’re called, should make their feelings known to Zenkel, and published the producer’s individual work email.

A couple of years ago, the first mention of Twitter in an article such as this would have been followed by an identifier of some sort: “Twitter, the shorthand social networking site,” or words to that effect. Today that would be akin to saying, “the Olympics, an international sporting event”. Twitter has reached the kind of cultural saturation point where it’s no longer necessary to identify it. Everybody already knows. Tweeting is ubiquitous. Politicians do it, celebrities do it, even L.A. correspondents do it.

Adams’ remarks look pretty aggressive on the page, but the page obscures a couple of mitigating factors. For one, we don’t hear his English accent. In England these days, the famed British understatement is out, and strong speech is very much in. The English are never disappointed anymore, they are “gutted.” Never shocked, they are “gobsmacked.” From England came the much-overused hyperbole, “thrown under a bus.” Say, “utter, utter bastards” with an educated English accent and it comes out as a mild sniff of disapproval.

The second factor to consider is that Adams was tweeting. Among the many reasons for tweeting is that it’s an easy way to vent about what makes you steamed. Strong words and indignation are the norm on Twitter. This January, Canada’s Treasury Board president Tony Clement called a 15-year-old boy a “jack ass” for correcting the spelling in one of his tweets. When the Conservatives used closure to limit debate on the budget, New Democrat Pat Martin tweeted, “This is a f-ing disgrace”, and when someone complained he replied, “f-you”. And no, he didn’t spell it with a dash. Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae called someone an “a-hole” on Twitter. Again, the dash is mine.

When Adams discovered his account was suspended, he immediately contacted Twitter support, and was informed that he had broken the rules by revealing Zenkel’s private e-mail. But as Adams pointed out, he did no such thing. The email he published was a corporate one, and already public knowledge. After a burst of Twitter-typical indignation among Adams’ followers, the company has since apologized and reinstated his account, and a more credible explanation for his suspension has emerged.

Twitter and NBC, it turns out, are partnered to provide Olympic coverage. NBC staff didn’t complain about Adams’ tweet until Twitter staff brought it to their attention. It looks very much as though Twitter shut Adams down because he was vociferous in his criticism of their corporate buddy. Both Twitter and NBC have apologized to Adams.

All of this has the air of a tempest in a teacup, until you consider that Twitter has become a tool of choice for journalists. In a world where tweeting has become integral to reporting the news, a reporter banned from Twitter is a reporter silenced, at least in part. Or as Adams puts it, “It really brought home to me as a journalist how much I rely on Twitter these days to do my job.” What has been severely damaged by the incident is the notion that social networking, unlike evil corporate media such as newspapers and TV, belongs to the people.

Twitter is not the Wild West. It’s not the people’s media. It’s a private, for-profit company, just like NBC, or Sun Media, or the Yukon News. The difference is that while those media outlets have the power to influence their own employees, Twitter can pull the plug on anyone who uses it. In the wake of the Adams controversy they swear such a thing was never meant to happen and won’t happen again. But how do they know what pressure will be brought to bear on them next time?

The best thing that could happen to Twitter is that people could lose interest in trying to communicate serious matters in snatches of text. Tweet, if you must, about the antics of celebrities, or what your annoying boyfriend (or bf, in tweetspeak) said last night. But surely anything worth reporting is worth spending more than 140 characters on. And if you’re a reader, and want to know what’s going on, consider there may be better ways to inform yourself than to see what the twits are tweeting.

Al Pope has twice won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon.