What started as a ‘harmless’ debate about unwanted fake accounts on Twitter, which some people and organisations suffer from, ended in a rather heated discussion at our office. After all, is there any harm when someone opens a fake account using your name? Could it damage a person’s reputation, or do Tweeters simply view them as parody accounts?
The value of Twitter
The line of discussion soon switched to the matter of the value of Twitter, as a news provider for example. Given the considerable growth of this networking site, however, users currently have to process vast amounts of content and data. Is the quality consequently affected, and what steps does Twitter intend to take in the area of quality control? Whatever the case, users currently have a pretty hard time assessing what information is of value and what not. And this is not only the case on Twitter, but also on other social media. Consider for example Quora, the Q&A site which is currently of a particularly high standard. Is it at all conceivable that it might maintain this level of quality as user numbers continue to rise?
Blogging for Frankwatching
The time appeared to be ripe for me to write an opinion blog on the subject, based partly on online research and partly on my own experience as a fanatical Tweeter. My story has since been published on the Dutch online marketing blog Frankwatching, which enabled me to achieve my aim: To fuel the debate. Curious, and keen to take part in the debate? Read the translation below:
BREAKING NEWS: Twitter victim of its own success
‘We interrupt your schedule to bring you an extra newsflash. Rumours are spreading that Twitter has just become the victim of its own success. Our news team is currently working flat out to verify the facts. We shall get back to you as soon as possible with a report by our local correspondent.’
There are currently about 175 million Twitter accounts worldwide, and this figure is only expected to increase. This may sound good for Twitter’s founders, but the networking site appears to be gradually succumbing to its own success. And I am not referring simply to its lack of a suitable earnings model, but primarily to the quality of its content and followers. I once praised Twitter for its news level and the extremely rapid provision of valuable information. I was generally aware of those on whom I could rely as sources of quality news items, but this has become increasingly difficult. How is that possible? I can identify three main reasons for this turnaround.
1. The masses have discovered Twitter
My heart was in my mouth when Jack Dorsey (Twitter’s founder) announced his intention to make the product more mainstream. While it was still possible to keep track of the number of Tweeters just a few years ago, the site has long since achieved mainstream status in my opinion. While a large percentage of the early adopters still appear to use Twitter for useful purposes, the latest crowd remains rather at a loss as to its value. There are remarkable amounts of chit chat, gossip and ‘I’m now ordering pizza’ updates these days.
While one is naturally free to choose whom to follow, the quality is sadly outweighed by the quantity. Sogeti’s Sander Duivestein aptly sums this up in his blog about the Twitter News Network. We need to find people who understand how to filter, combine and connect information. I myself find it increasingly difficult to distinguish good and less adequate sources from one another. Thankfully, I still have my trusty Twitter lists, which contain the names of people who are in any way at all useful to me. However, Twitter does not offer any tools to deal with the data overload that we are currently experiencing. Not to mention the situation that is expected to arise on the Web of the World from 2014, as forecast in the trend report ‘We the Web’.
2. The socialisation of news: Sources are not/hardly checked, as everyone wants to be the first
The socialisation of news has already occurred. All you need is a smartphone to post all sorts of information on social media like Twitter in no time at all. Everyone is suddenly a civilian reporter, and before you know it, your tweet has been – intentionally or inadvertently – transmitted to the other side of the world. Just last week, in fact, tweets by @reallyvirtual and @mpoppel concerning the death of Osama bin Laden made the global headlines. Or consider, for example, the first tweet about the plane crash at Schiphol airport.
Of course, Twitter operates ideally as a ‘reporting medium’ and news amplifier, although it has the drawback that fake stories are distributed far too often. The tone has therefore already been set, before ‘real’ journalists have the chance to check both the facts and the source. This is simply not common practice for the average Tweeter. And this is why Twitter often announces a mishmash of half-truths or entirely incorrect information as Breaking News. Furthermore, Twitter places the pressure of time on journalists, which does not generally contribute to the accuracy of their reports in the struggle for a news scoop.
3. Fake accounts: Little insight into what is true and what fake
Although fake accounts on Twitter are by no means a new phenomenon, their number has increased quite considerably along with the explosive growth of this networking site. Famous and less famous people, political parties, the Royal Family and various organisations have suffered from the misuse of their names: Mark Rutte, Queen Beatrix, NS, BP, ABN Amro, etc. Twitter recently caused considerable turmoil following the events of the shopping centre shootings in the Dutch city of Alphen aan den Rijn. What is known in Internet slang as a troll caused an uproar by posting tweets using a fake account in the name of Tristan van der Vlis (the gunman). The boy in question (@tristanalpie) was literally inundated with irate replies. So much so, that the police eventually had to intervene.
So how can journalists and other Tweeters actually tell whether the content originating from an account is genuine? While the majority of fake accounts are clearly intended as a parody, and therefore permitted by Twitter, the question remains how to deal with accounts that are deliberately designed to mislead people, as in the example above.
With this in mind, Twitter introduced the concept of verified accounts. The current number of verified accounts is around the 8,700 mark, which is a fraction of the total. While one could previously submit a request to Twitter to verify an account, this is no longer possible. Public requests are no longer accepted, although account verification is still occasionally carried out for an important person or organisation.
How might we continue to gain the greatest value from Twitter?
The fact that Twitter still has great value to me should be obvious. For quite some time, however, I have been toying with the issue of how journalists, ordinary users and organisations might continue to gain the greatest value from Twitter, now that the network has changed so much. When it comes to news, I think we should take Twitter seriously as a signalling and trend medium, but should leave the real work to ‘the journalist’. The way things ought to be. However, I also think that Twitter could certainly assist its users in processing data with a view to maintaining both the standard of quality and its own credibility. While I obviously have no insight into Twitter’s plans for the future, I am sure there are plenty of organisations and individuals who would be willing to pay a modest fee to acquire a verified account. This would enable Twitter users to assist in assessing the value of an account and the associated content. Another option is the rapid rollout of a rating system that would enable people to classify accounts, which would provide a better impression of their quality.
Furthermore, users and organisations alike would be able to get a lot more out of Twitter if we use the medium in a more social manner. Let’s all return to forging relationships, entering into dialogue and creating value for one another again.