On “a Twitter user” as the new “an area man” in media

This Tweet from journalist Lora Kolodny got my wheels spinning and made me want to articulate some thoughts about the place of social media in general, and Twitter in particular, in public discourse. I understand Lora means here that where media used to get “man on the street” comments on matters of public interest as part of their reporting, now everyone loves to quote people from Twitter.

I think this is great and nothing to be ashamed of but I do think that the practice could be improved upon substantially. For one thing, stop leading with silly usernames. The silly username and new platform is not the point. Maybe that’s just a pet peeve of mine.

More interesting is why this practice is so appealing. I think there are a number of reasons.

First, we really live in a global culture now where we’re able to access and are interested in peoples’ opinions regardless of where they live. That’s part of the promise of the internet being delivered, right there.

Second, more peoples’ opinions are accessible than ever before, with a much lower barrier to entry to discover them. That means there’s a greater pool of opinions to choose the most interesting ones from. The average Twitter user quoted by the media may not be as informed or interesting as the commenters over on the blog Marginal Revolution (a site I’m enjoying more all the time), but there are options now! For quoting the famous and the random people of the world. You might say social media accelerates Satisficing in acquisition of third party analysis of a matter. (“Satisficing is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met.”)

Third, there’s the Hawthorne Effect. Sometimes called the Observer Effect, this is the idea that a person’s behavior changes when they know they’re being watched. When the media interviews people, they get flustered, try too hard, play it safe, etc. They know they are entering the public eye in probably the biggest way they ever will.

Posting to your friends and the world on Twitter isn’t like that. But it’s not like a private conversation, either. On one hand it’s like perpetually living under the Observer Effect, but on another hand it’s not – and I think people probably grow numb to the sense they are being observed, over time. Then boom, the media uses your Tweet. Probably with permission, but asked after the fact – not like a man on the street interview. I think that represents a changed relationship between journalism and part of the world it reports on.

Finally, some observation I can offer based on my company’s data. I often see a news story break in media coverage and rush to Little Bird to find out what the most influential people in relevant specialties are saying about it, in real time.

For example, when Amazon announced its drone delivery plan – I looked at what the drone experts were saying about it. Or when Google bought Boston Dynamics, I checked to see what leading robotics experts were saying in real time. You know what they were saying? Nothing. At least the top 500 or so (measured by peer validation, as we do), took hours after the story was reported before they commented on Twitter. The media, people who specialize in learning about and telling stories fast, had all the experts beat by hours. Even the experts who are super comfortable with posting their thoughts publicly in the real-time medium of Twitter. I think that’s a point for the traditional media, despite the widespread critique that they just parrot what they find on Twitter now. Not always!

That said, I always found when I was working as a journalist, that two great ways to capture unique value from the social web were as follows:
* First, search inside the archives of the blogs of subject matter experts to see what they’ve written in past long-form content on the topic of the news you’re reporting. (I did this by creating Google Custom Search Engines that let me search across all the top blogs in a subject, once I’d found the top blogs at least.)
* Second, reaching out to relevant experts by Twitter Direct Message and getting real-time quotes works great. If you can identify which experts in a relevant field already follow you, you can DM them and they love providing quotes by email.

My company makes both of those practices easy to do, but for whatever reason we’re finding marketers are more willing to do them than journalists, so far. I would love for that to change.