This must have been a baffling week for NBC executives.
The nation’s oldest TV network — and the tubes through which we’re watching the Olympics — has endured harsh criticism on Twitter for its tape-delayed, late-night coverage of the Summer Games.
The hashtag #NBCFail has been connected to thousands, perhaps millions, of tweets such as this one: “BREAKING: USA wins gold medal in synchronized NBC bashing. Tune in to NBC tomorrow for coverage of the event.”
Journalists quickly jumped on the Twitter frenzy, reporting about the uproar in the Wall Street Journal, on CNN.com, in USA Today and beyond.
From the tone on Twitter, it sounds as if America, fed up with NBC, is willing to watch just about anything else on TV — even “Bachelor Pad.”
But NBC’s ratings tell a different story. The numbers are higher than expected, both in viewership and ad dollars, and the network’s executives are happy. “The silent majority” of viewers, one top executive told reporters, is content.
How these two contradictory plotlines — #NBCFail and “Let’s watch the Olympics tonight!” — developed highlights the information gulf in our digital age. This is the era when Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare and Instagram and Yelp were supposed to connect all of us, a networked community of computer and gadget users in disparate places.
But the #NBCFail hullabaloo clearly shows that we are still talking past each other, just like we always have. Even as social networks bring us closer to people we already know, and to strangers with shared interests and passions, that might never change. In fact, the disconnect could get worse.
In examining how #NBCFail became a major story, it’s crucial to know this: Only about 8 percent of U.S. Internet users use Twitter on a typical day, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Put another way, 92 percent of U.S. Internet users aren’t seriously using Twitter. The demographics of the site skew heavily to young adults, urban and suburban residents, and African Americans.
They used to talk to each other in what was just a tweet-tweet echo chamber. As recently as 2010, research from the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that “social media tend to home in on stories that get much less attention in the mainstream press. And there is little evidence, at least at this point, of the traditional press then picking up on those stories in response.”
But in the past year or so, there has been an appreciable change. Stories and movements that develop in cyberspace are moving to the mainstream media more often, even though most Americans are not spending their days following debates streaming down their computer monitors. Remember: Many Americans have jobs that don’t require them to stare at computers all day.
My wife is a doctor. She is no dummy. She is also a passionate Olympics watcher. The other night, over our daily required intake of summer ice cream treats, I asked her, “What do you make of all the criticism of NBC?” She looked at me like I had just told her that I forgot to take out the trash. I explained the #NBCFail issue. She said, “I’m not on the Internet all day like you are.”
I noted a similar thought from ESPN writer Don Van Natta Jr., who said: “My 70-year-old mother gets all her news from the morning newspaper. She thinks NBC’s Olympics coverage is swell.”
Where did I find Van Natta’s thought? On Twitter, of course.
Back in 2009 and into 2010, journalists who were glued to Twitter were outliers. But today, if a journalist is not spending a good portion of his day on Twitter, he is either unconscious or not near a WiFi hot spot. And journalists — I’m guilty as charged — are increasingly turning to the site as a snappy way to see what the American People are thinking about. William Dutton, a professor of Internet studies at Oxford, has called the rise of networked individuals and the Twitterati the “Fifth Estate.”
As Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, told me, “Journalists find Twitter to be a really effective, fascinating and even thrilling way of tracking conversation and tracking news.”
It’s right at our desks — and journalists, especially this one, are nothing if not general haters of being outdoors. It’s easy to search. And Twitter users are frequently angry about some slight or another, which provides conflict-in-a-box. Start-ups such as Storify have produced apps that even let journalists turn tweets into stories. Twitter is the new man-on-the-street, seemingly solving a problem journalists have struggled with since the days of the penny press: How do we figure out what America is thinking?
Some big mainstream stories have gained significant traction on Twitter, including the Arab Spring and the controversy over Planned Parenthood funding from the Susan G. Komen breast cancer group. But other stories — ones that probably don’t reflect what most of America is thinking about — are turning up more often in mainstream outlets.
The #NBCFail drama is one example. The renewed vigor with which the media seem to be covering presidential candidates’ gaffes is another. There should be a new word for the look on the faces of non-Twitter users when they are asked about a controversy on the site. I propose “twerplexed.”
And even though most of America isn’t paying attention, mainstream news outlets are increasing their reliance on Twitter. This newspaper tracks references to political candidates on Twitter using something it calls @MentionMachine. This past week, Twitter introduced its Twitter Political Index, which uses tweets to measure sentiment about President Obama and Mitt Romney, as if the very small subset of Americans who tweet — and tweet about politics — could tell us anything meaningful about the presidential race.
I like the way Rosenstiel put it: “If Twitter was a meaningful predictor of voter behavior, Ron Paul would be the Republican nominee.”
America is still disconnected.
Michael S. Rosenwald, a Washington Post reporter, writes the blog Rosenwald, Md.
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