I’m at a dud party, and I’m thinking it might be time to leave. I got here reasonably early (I’ve always been unfashionably, anxiously punctual), and things were quite fun to begin with. But the room’s thinning out now, and I’ve noticed a lot of people either grabbing their coats and heading for the door, or pulling out their phones to check the time. It seemed livelier when I first arrived – more of an undergrad house party – but now there’s definitely a mid-30s bbq thing going on. Suddenly there are infants mewling and puking in Baby Bjorns, and people are chuntering on about poor old Robin Williams, or the picture of a sunset they took on their last work trip.
Facebook is now that tedious afternoon get-together at a peripheral friend’s place, where people talk amongst their ageing sodalities and largely ignore the inane chatter of the other, half-familiar guests out of bourgeois politeness. I still check my feed around five hundred times a day of course, but it’s an increasingly desultory experience. The taxonomy of Facebook hasn’t changed much over the journey: the braggart self-promoters; the earnest armchair activists; the compliment-fishers; the lonely over-sharers; the airhead narcissists shoving our faces into their quotidian ponds (“I had FIVE cups of coffee before lunch today, can you believe it??”); each of these species is still thriving in the ecosystem, and truth be told, in weaker moments we’ve all exhibited one or more of their traits. But according to a number of recent studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, Facebook is quite literally getting old, with teens and twenty-somethings abandoning the platform to make way for their parents and older relatives. And an increasingly intrusive advertising presence has only hastened this gentrification process.
Twitter, on the other hand, is still a rowdy pub or club on $5 drinks night, with matching standards of behaviour and civility. This is partly a function of the 140 character limit, which structurally invites pithy punchlines from wannabe stand-up comedians and flame-throwing from the troll classes, as opposed to polite discussion. But more fundamentally, it is a different mode of discourse. Unlike Facebook, it’s not a “friends” culture of faux-bonhomie and clique, but a raucous public house of opinion and pronouncement, where anonymity and pseudonymity are normative, and access to both the general conversation, and those taking part in it, is democratised. So the most humble fan can now instantly approach a famous sports star, an aggrieved constituent has a direct line to a federal politician, and for the first time in the history of news media, readers can let previously cloistered journalists know exactly what they think of their work.
The Australian’s Chris Kenny has had an eventful time on Twitter, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that he had one or two interesting things to say about it in a recent op-ed for the paper. Whilst I concur eternally with this character assessment of the reactionary stooge penned by his own son(!), Kenny’s thoughts on one aspect of social media seem to speak to a larger truth about modern journalism:
“This is the democratisation of media, as some would have it, and there is no doubt the exchanges can be mutually beneficial. But what if the focus of the political class is also being narrowed through social media? And what if the agendas, standards and even manners of social media are absorbed by osmosis into the media and the political class? Perhaps this, in part, is what happened to former Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton, whose abusive and racist responses to readers this week saw him depart the newspaper.”
Whilst the accusation of racism is deliberately mischievous, there’s no doubt that Carlton’s response to online criticism of his SMH column on Gaza was over the top and needlessly aggressive. Whereas in days of yore, columnists at major dailies would’ve viewed rolling around in the mud with the proles (via the letters page, phone or front bar) as infra dig, Carlton gleefully belly-flopped into the peat bog, telling all of the assembled “turds”, “pissants” and “wankers” to go and “get fucked”. This of course made hugely entertaining reading, and speaks to why Carlton is such a popular figure on Twitter, as he gives his ex-2UE shock jock persona free rein. But what if Kenny’s main point holds water? What if journalists are becoming trolls?
They’ve certainly been trolling each other a fair bit lately. Published directly beneath Kenny’s piece in the same edition, for instance, was yet another drive-by in the interminable spat between The Australian and the Financial Review’s Mark Latham over the AWU-Julia Gillard slush fund affair. Essentially a tedious catfight between journalists masquerading as a story, this ego war between The Oz’s media team and the cabbie-punching former Labor leader is now the metanarrative running ahead of Hedley Thomas’ never-ending conspiracy muck-rake into Julia Gillard’s 1990s home renovations. These “stories” have consisted largely of selective extracts from each other’s bitchy emails, and in concert read like a YouTube comments section. Mike Carlton’s abusive email exchanges with readers were first revealed by fellow journalist Andrew Bolt, and the story snowballed from there to encompass his Twitter correspondence, and eventual sacking. And even in Melbourne’s AFL media, coverage was recently dominated by a flame war between footy journos over the Essendon drugs story. The Herald Sun’s chief football writer, Mark Robinson, was bucketed for being a mouthpiece for suspended former coach James Hird, to the point where he was accused of not being able to write, and of being an inadequate appointment to his senior role at the newspaper.
So do readers want to read this stuff? We’re traditionally told that people fall asleep when the media starts talking about itself, but that’s patently not the case if these stories keep getting published. When systems are in flux, or crisis, they tend to turn self-reflexive. Art, music and literature have all been obsessed at one time or another with form and the role of the author, and right now, we seem to be witnessing journalism grapple with its own version of post-structuralism. Previously people trusted the authority of both journalists and the newspaper masthead, but now that everyone can comment and tweet on yarns, and journos (apart from the Bakers and McKenzies of this world) tend not to stray too far from their Twitter feeds in search of a story, there’s an appetite for knowing how these stories are constructed, and what personal biases journalists bring to them. Not only is everybody a critic now, but as the inner workings of the media become demystified, and social media brings us all into the same room, everybody feels like they’re a journalist too (not least because of the prevalence of comment and opinion pieces in the major papers, as opposed to hard news). But for every “citizen blogger” breaking real stories and publishing pieces of interest, there are a thousand ignorant, bilious commenters opining in derp and recycling partisan talking points. If you want to simultaneously lose faith in humanity and the will to live, you need only read the comments section of a news article from any given day, from either News Ltd or Fairfax. So in this sense, the Carlton affair should give us pause for thought, as it limns the blurring of the line between journalism and its discontents.
There’s also the issue of whether traditional journalistic practice has been eroded by Twitter, and the extent to which the mainstream media is using the platform as a crutch. Just the other week, The Australian’s “Cut and Paste” section lambasted the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy for a posting an intemperate tweet, only to be alerted by one of Cassidy’s colleagues that the tweet had come from a fake account, showing up the paper’s embarrassing inattention to basic checks and research. More generally, a huge percentage of news stories are now generated by Twitter, with journalists simply having to monitor their feeds for quotes and angles, as opposed to wearing out shoe leather or the phone line. From ISIS jihadists posing for family portraits with severed heads, to Robin Williams’ daughter being trolled with offensive cadaver shots, the types of stories making it to the digital front page on a daily basis show that Twitter is rapidly supplanting both the notepad and the dictaphone as the journalist’s main tool of trade. And like many stations of its type, ABC24 now runs a regular segment examining the news from the perspective of Twitter, showing the growing symbiosis between the two platforms. So is it any wonder that the “standards and manners of social media”, especially Twitter, are beginning to permeate what journalists produce?