Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Michael Jackson Is Dead, Jeff Goldblum Is Alive. Can Twitter Tell the Difference?

michael-jacksonBig day for Twitter yesterday. News broke, and people promptly turned to the service to spread the word. It’s a story that’s becoming increasingly familiar.

Except…I have this nagging concern.

Like a lot of you, I first learned about Michael Jackson’s death Thursday via Twitter. But at the time, I wasn’t convinced I was learning about it.

I saw tweet after tweet on my BlackBerry declaring the superstar dead. I was mobile, and my Web browser wasn’t working, so my Twitter stream was my only source of information, and I was grateful for it.

But in the first hour the story broke, I was never sure what the source of the information was. And so I never knew whether I should believe it.

Turns out that some of the Twitterers I followed had seen a report, first published at 5:20 Eastern time by TMZ.com, Time Warner’s (TWX) gossip powerhouse. But even if they linked to TMZ, I couldn’t tell that at a glance because they used URL-shorteners like bit.ly that obscured the Web addresses.

And many other Twitterers didn’t bother to explain where they’d heard the information at all. It was just fact. They were right, of course. But were they sure?

In some folks’ eyes, these qualms I have about accuracy and sourcing make me an old media dinosaur. So says a pal who’s worked as a reporter at three big, prestigious old media outlets. Here’s a bit of a missive he sent me via Facebook:

Twitter delivered the news first and fastest. Yes, it was from tmz; but who actually went to tmz.com? I didn’t. I read it on Twitter… and stayed there to read more. Did I turn on CNN? No. Just read the tweets.

This is really bad for old media: Twitter is the water cooler. It is the center of the conversation. Almost every media outlet wants to be the center of a conversation. They’re suddenly failing.

But I don’t think it’s that binary. Twitter and old media are complementary, and the former certainly has less value without the latter.

I eventually got to a Web browser and looked around the Web for other sources confirming Jackson’s death. When I couldn’t find them, I came back to Twitter.

At 6:15 Eastern time, the Los Angeles Times reported that Jackson was dead, citing its own sources. After that I knew that Twitter would primarily be repeating the LAT’s report and those that followed it, so I bailed.

That worked out well. Staying clear of Twitter for a while Thursday night meant I didn’t have to read about Jeff Goldblum’s death. Which never happened, of course. But that didn’t stop Twitter users from repeating the story, over and over.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work