Twitter, the much-hyped online social networking service, is now exploring the wonderful world of fake news. Following the "is it really newsworthy?" spectacle of its five billionth tweet, Twitter demonstrated why it's not a reliable news source as a celebrity death hoax echoed through the twitterverse.
This time, the victim was Kanye West, and the news of his death may have been inspired by a Spike Jonze-directed video of the star stabbing himself. With the addition of a fictitious Fox News-styled homepage announcing West's end (you can see a screenshot of the page here), the tale of the singer's demise quickly gained momentum. Needless to say, West and his girlfriend Amber Rose were not amused.
The twitterverse runs on a mix of cynicism and optimism, with questions about profitability battering hopeful predictions about Twitter's role in a new world of social networking and information sharing. While much of the site is clogged with moneymaking schemers and big corporations attempting to create viral movements, twitterers often seem inclined to work around these irritations, seeing them as the cost of doing business in an online environment. The hope is that Twitter, along with Facebook and other social-networking programs, might offer a more democratic and inclusive news-sharing network; if this works, then the occasional tweet about Whoppers or propecia would be like a television commercial -- a small price to pay for a very useful service.
The thing is, the Kanye West death hoax -- along with the Zach Braff death hoax and the Jeff Goldblum death hoax and the Britney Spears death hoax -- demonstrates Twitter's shortcomings both in breadth and in reliability. One of the major functions of news media is to bring readers or watchers into contact with a broad range of opinions, events, perspectives and personalities. While Twitter offers an arena for millions of voices to share information, the fact is that the herd seems to focus most of its attention on the same personalities that already dominate the airwaves.
Another problem is that, unlike traditional media, the information flowing through Twitter isn't policed. In an ideal world, this would translate into a reliable news feed that would catch all the stories that the mainstream news misses. In reality, it translates into a space where rumors quickly achieve the weight of fact, a flattened, anarchic landscape where Brian Gibson, Senator Jim DeMint and @lugnut37 can all shriek from equally-tall soapboxes. Cook's editor Christopher Kimball's claim that Twitter and other social media killed Gourmet magazine was simpleminded, but he had one good point: traditional media tends to weed out the reliable voices from the unreliable ones. Twitter doesn't.
When the mainstream media falls for a hoax -- as Reuters recently did -- it's fairly easy to figure out what happened. Tracking down the first Kanye hoaxster is far more difficult.
This isn't to say that Twitter doesn't have its place. As a means of communication, it's quick, easy and intimate. And, as a mirror of the zeitgeist, it may be unparalleled: anyone looking to quickly determine the most talked-about stories of the day would be wise to give it a peek. As a news source, however, it's about as reliable as a bathroom stall, a graffiti-sprayed wall, or any other open-access, unmediated space.
Speaking of which, this just in from Twitter: for a good time, call 867-5309 and ask for Jenny.
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