Dave Allen

Justin Bieber and what is news

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Justin Bieber mugshot

Image: Miami Dade County Jail, via Associated Press

At some point, Twitter and the rest of social media became less about wanting to share the news and more about wanting to be the news.

Take Justin Bieber, for example.

As reports of the once-angelic and deeply troubled Canadian pop star’s arrest began to make its way around the web, reactions streamed onto Twitter, ranging from jokes to tongue clucks.

But by far, the most common refrain was something like this: “Why is this news??”

The simplest answer is that it wasn’t — at least not the most important news happening on that particular day. But Twitter isn’t really about the most important thing anymore — it stopped being about relevancy a long time ago. Twitter seems to have reached a turning point, a phase in which its contributors have stopped trying to make the service as useful as possible for the crowd, and are instead trying to distinguish themselves from one another. It’s less about drifting down the stream, absorbing what you can while you float, and more about trying to make the flashiest raft to float on, gathering fans and accolades as you go.

How did this happen?

What you see above is the opening paragraphs of an article in the New York Times by Jenna Wortham. The article is titled – Valley of the Blahs: How Justin Bieber’s Troubles Exposed Twitter’s Achilles’ Heel.

I notice the article received quite a lot of attention, ironically in Twitter, but I never saw anyone question why suddenly Twitter has a damaged Achilles’ Heel. Nor did I see anyone question Ms. Wortham’s premise; “Twitter and the rest of social media became less about wanting to share the news and more about wanting to be the news.”

Really? Let’s take the sentence “At some point, Twitter and the rest of social media became less about wanting to share the news and more about wanting to be the news.” What does that mean? Ms. Wortham conflates web platforms and/or social networks and all of their users into one giant construct, yet I believe she should have written: Twitter users want to be the news. Twitter is the platform for those users to share the news. Twitter doesn’t want to be anything. Its executives might want it to be something but they can’t control how people use the system.

In my last post I wrote about Complexity Theory. I shared an abstract from a Melvyn Bragg podcast on Complexity:

“Complexity is a young discipline which can help us understand the world around us. When individuals come together and act in a group, they do so in complicated and unpredictable ways: societies often behave very differently from the people within them.”

I then went on to consider social media networks and community managers:

In my social media networks example, where Facebook is a gathering of individuals using a structure in a complex system – the Internet, community managers assume that all of those users act in the same way, whether giving positive or negative feedback. When faced with negativity they respond as if they are dealing with a central heating system, thinking that they only have to apply the right amount of correction at the correct time to reach equilibrium, i.e. a return to a positive brand result. Well that doesn’t happen in complex systems.

The point here is that if a community manager is trying to re-establish the former position, e.g. positive feedback, she’s in trouble, because the structure’s acts of evolving and co-evolving (through user activity) allow it to obtain different states. All those Facebook users create multiple equilibria, not a single point of equilibrium, therefore the system is in a state of constant flux. In other words, you can’t return to a system that existed in the past. The community managers have no control over this turmoil as much as they might believe they do.

This flux happens a lot in Twitter too. In fact Twitter is a digital product that has moved far, far from its original roots precisely because of how people use it. Its creators could not have predicted that human behavior outcome.

Justin Bieber being arrested is not important news except perhaps to his closest relatives and his millions of fans. Ms. Wortham points out that the theme amongst Twitter users was “Why is this news?” Fair enough, but it is some kind of news. When one writes for an august newspaper such as the New York Times I suspect there will be a “news bias.” It might be “our news runs deeper and is more informative than anything on Twitter.” That may be so, yet it means that the organization, or people who work within it, is presuming that all people want their news delivered to them in a certain way. And that isn’t true.

Therefore, Ms. Wortham’s contention (if she means users) that “At some point, Twitter and the rest of social media became less about wanting to share the news and more about wanting to be the news” is not true either. Social media network users do not all act in concert. She could rightly say that some users act as if they are “wanting to be the news.”

And that’s how I got to this:

The structure of networks often make spread look easy: think corridors. We also assume that connectivity is the same over time, it is not. The quality and intensity of connectivity varies all the time even with the same individuals. If online social networks are the “corridors” of the web we must constantly evaluate what individuals are doing there. We cannot assume that because these individuals are grouped together in Facebook that they all act the same way at the same time.

Meanwhile, Justin Bieber seems to be playing out the role of all young musicians who want to shift their careers from child star to mature, grown up star. That’s definitely not new news.


  • David Kahl

    Neil deGrasse Tyson’s article on space-related technology and innovation – among several other things – has three paragraphs, which are aptly applied to “presentists”, as well as futurists:

    “Let’s talk about true innovation. People often ask, If you like spin-off products, why not just invest in those technologies straightaway, instead of waiting for them to happen as spin-offs? The answer: it just doesn’t work that way. Let’s say you’re a thermodynamicist, the world’s expert on heat, and I ask you to build me a better oven.

    You might invent a convection oven, or an oven that’s more insulated or that permits easier access to its contents. But no matter how much money I give you, you will not invent a microwave oven. Because that came from another place. It came from investments in communications, in radar. The microwave oven is traceable to the war effort, not to a thermodynamicist.

    That’s the kind of cross-pollination that goes on all the time. And that’s why futurists always get it wrong — because they take the current situation and just extrapolate. They don’t see surprises. So they get the picture right for about five years into the future, and they’re hopeless after ten.”

    Critics should know something about the “other places”, from which the objects of their criticism arise. They should also know that description is only – maybe – half of the critique equation. Prescription is, in my humble opinion, a weightier component.