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What’s With the Media’s Twitter and Facebook Obsession?

• June 12, 2009 • 9:25 PM

The media may seem obsessed with Twitter because the people who are the media are obsessed with Twitter.

Wherever you turn these days — whether newspapers, radio or television — journalists espouse the virtues of Twitter and Facebook. In the short lifespan of Internet hype, MySpace and Friendster are ancient history. So what gives? Is there some sort of media conspiracy, or are Twitter-haters just jealous they didn’t think of it first?

As if 24-hour news coverage wasn’t enough, CNN regularly asks viewers to follow reporters on Facebook — now purportedly with more than 200 million users — and Twitter, the country’s fastest-growing social networking site now with more than 10 million users. Watch The Daily Show’s take here.

CNN is by no means alone. Based on a recent Harvard study of more than 300,000 users, Twitter may be more of a media darling than a red-hot networking site. The study found that 10 percent of Twitter users produce roughly 90 percent of the content.

“On a typical online social network, the top 10 percent of users account for 30 percent of all production,” the Harvard research team wrote on a recent blog post. “This implies that Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.”

The statistics reveal what appears likely based on incessant Twitter references among mainstream media: It’s the media itself driving much of the content.

“There are a disproportionate number of journalists that use Twitter. Because of their involvement, they may see it as bigger than it really it is,” said Timothy Karr, campaign director for Free Press, the largest media reform organization in the U.S. “There’s a sort of echo chamber that resonates throughout the media. Whether the media created the hype or the hype created the media interest is hard to say.”

Karr reminds us that more than 40 percent of Americans do not have high-speed Internet access.

“Whenever anyone prophesizes about social media and how it’s changing the world they forget that there are still tens of millions of Americans for whom that’s an abstract idea,” Karr said. “It’s changing the world for a certain class of people who are Internet savvy and are spending increasing amounts of their time using this stuff.”

Columbia Journalism School has even stepped into the fray, launching its first “social-media internships” this year, said Sree Sreenivasan, dean of students.

“We used Facebook and Twitter to connect with students and held multiple workshops and classes (all optional) to teach students how to use these networks to connect with sources and readers,” Sreenivasan wrote (fittingly) in an e-mail response. “We also emphasized the pitfalls that reporters can fall into when relying too much on such technologies.”

A pitfall, perhaps, is the inability to ask follow-up questions. Although professors may branch out on their own, Facebook and Twitter are not part of the digital curriculum, Sreenivasan said.

Besides promoting their own Twitter feeds, media outlets seem to love stories about businesses using Twitter to promote their products, such as this National Public Radio story in March about a food cart in Los Angeles that uses Twitter to draw customers.

According to another study of online users, social media sites in general may have reached a tipping point driven mostly by media hype, and they don’t in fact drive many purchasing decisions. The study by Knowledge Networks, an online marketing research firm, used responses from 418 social media users.

“While 83 percent of the Internet population (ages 13 to 54) participates in social media — 47 percent on a weekly basis — less than 5 percent of social media users regularly turn to these sites for guidance on purchase decisions in any of nine product/service categories,” wrote the authors of the study in a recent press release. “In addition, only 16 percent of social media users say they are more likely to buy from companies that advertise on social sites.”

Karr thinks the media’s fascination with social media has at least in part to do with attempts to connect with younger generations, although Facebook has increasingly caught on with older people.

“There’s a genuine concern that journalism is a dying trade and in order for them to continue to be relevant, they need to adopt more of the tools and tactics common to the Internet generation,” Karr said.

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David Rosenfeld
David Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon with 10 years of experience writing for newspapers. He writes primarily about health care, conservation and the changing world around us.

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