I ascribe to Twitter the demise of more of our staff than any other cause. Directly, or as a contributing factor.
Please let me share some thoughts with you, that I hope you take to heart.
Let me start by stating the obvious: we are called The Rebel, not The Establishment.
We are contrarians, and we believe in free speech and oppose political correctness. We take on sacred cows — we’re not fake-offended. The pearl-clutching this week about www.ClimateBarbie.com
is an example.
We focus on controversial issues by design — but, I hope, we do so thoughtfully, and we work as a team. Twitter’s risk is that it replaces planned, deliberate controversies with solo accidents, that our opponents then turn into controversies for us, on their terms. I think it’s in the nature of the Twitter medium. It replaces planned campaigns with recklessness.
Twitter is too instant, so tweets are not always given the benefit of sober second thought. That was a new risk when e-mail became ubiquitous too. But at least e-mail usually goes to a limited number of people, not published to the world. And by design, tweets are so short, they beg to be sent half-baked.
In addition to the risks of intemperate tweets, there is a larger risk of being seduced by the Twitter vortex. By making the mistake that Twitter’s feedback — which can be so addictive — is either important or positive (or commercially valuable). Because the deeper you go down any rabbit-hole in Twitter, the more magnified that particular, obscure community is in your perception of reality. You can have hundreds of people — including many anonymous accounts, including many ‘bots — giving you social reinforcement, psychologically normalizing things that actually aren’t normal. You can see this in the echo-chambers of the alt-left and the alt-right. I’ll use @BakedAlaska as an example of this — a funny, harmless, friend-to-all rapper and practical joker who got sucked into Twitter, and just started mimicking the lingo of white nationalism, and was soon making gas chamber memes. Because Twitter, not real life, became his peer group.
I believe that a number of our former staff had their judgment altered by the siren song of Twitter likes or retweets. Becoming addicted to that instant feedback, and becoming obsessed with doing whatever it takes to get more followers, retweets and likes. Soon you’re not doing journalism — you’re doing Twitter, becoming more and more active and more and more shocking. It transforms you from covering the news to being the news — to win the Twitter arms race to get more interaction.
And it’s a huge time thief.
Being a Twitter star can work for a very select group of pundits — I think of Ann Coulter, for example. But even she is careful about her deliberate controversies. And, more to the point, she uses her notoriety to sell her real journalism — her many books, columns and paid speeches. And she was a provocateur before Twitter;she simply added Twitter to her other mediums. Twitter is not her central activity — it supports her other work.
And I suppose, most importantly: Ann just works for Ann. She’s not part of a larger team.
By this point, you may be rolling your eyes at me — I’ve made 80,000 tweets in eight years, that’s more than 25 a day. And I have had my share of flame wars too. I suppose my first answer would be that I, too, need to improve and focus — by using Twitter to promote my journalism and the journalism of the rest of the team; and thinking about each tweet more widely than any particular political snit I’m in at the moment. It has also taken me a while to understand how I am different now, than when I joined Twitter in 2009 — and how we as a company are different now. We have 850,000 YouTube followers, more than a million folks in our larger list. I think we should act like it — as in, be a bit more confident and less indulgent of any leftist loser who wishes to engage us, just to build himself up. These days, frankly, even quarrelling with a mayor or Member of Parliament can feel like we’re stooping to conquer. We should punch up, not down; let’s chase big game, not little rabbit tracks.
There’s something else about Twitter — it gives away our content for free. There is no monetization in a tweet — we sell no banner ads off it, we don’t sign up people’s e-mail addresses. I see celebrities or others who have already made it, using Twitter. But I haven’t seen anyone who is a Twitter star then turning it in something more bankable.
I’m not censoring anyone here. But it goes without saying that in our business, our brand is the combination of all of our various views and public statements. There are things that cannot be said, and it’s simply impossible for us to imagine a list of those possible things in advance.
Before you tweet, take a moment to think what our subscribers would say; what our crowdfunding donors would say; and what the rest of our team-mates would say. (And maybe what your mom would say!) And think: “could I do this better as a short, produced, edited video”? The answer to that is almost always “yes”.
So my message is: tweet less; tweet more about journalism than about yourself; get into fewer flame wars; punch up, not down; make videos instead of tweets; and remember that our enemies are looking for ways to embarrass us.