Opinion: What Not to Tweet

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(Note: This column appeared in the March/April 2012 edition of Tell magazine)

There was a moment about halfway through Microsoft’s keynote at January’s International CES in which the proceedings – CEO Steve Ballmer being interviewed on stage by “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest – were temporarily interrupted by a “Tweet Choir.”

Yes, that’s right: a full church choir, from the Las Vegas Mass Choir, came onstage and spent several minutes performing improvised Gospel-style musical renditions of actual messages that those watching the keynote had posted to Twitter in the few minutes prior:

Judging by reaction on (yes) Twitter, most observers thought the Tweet Choir’s performance was weird, bizarre, pointless and tonally off, especially coming as part of Microsoft’s last-ever appearance at the show. I thought it was pretty harmless, if not dishonest; after all, the Twitter reaction to the relatively news-less keynote had been less than positive up to the point of the Choir’s performance, so the all-positive tweets the choir sang must have been difficult to cherry-pick.

Rather, I saw the Tweet Choir as another example of large corporations knowing that Twitter is important but completely misusing it all the same. We see this, especially, in the media world, especially when it comes to news, sports and political culture.

Around the time of Twitter’s inception, realizing they had to fill 24 hours a day somehow, cable news networks decided it would be hip and with-it for their anchors to read tweets live on the air, much as they had with then-revolutionary emails in 1995. One since-fired CNN anchor, Rick Sanchez, had “snarkily reading tweets aloud” as his primary job description.

Then all sorts of shows – including various sports highlight and MTV shows, as well as Ed Schultz’s MSNBC talk show – decided to include a non-stop scroll of Tweets at the bottom of the screen, most of which are poorly spelled and only serve to distract from the show itself, as well as the news crawls and other things on screen already. If I wanted to read tweets while watching “The Ed Show,” I’d open Twitter and search for “The Ed Show.”

Another nadir of this Twitter misuse was during the Arab spring protests in early 2011, when the participants used social networks to communicate and coordinate the revolution. Several news shows, including NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saw it fit to feature a large screen on their set, with the Tweetdeck application open, showing thousands of Tweets from those on the ground in Egypt.

No, the shows didn’t feel the need to zoom in on the screen or show exactly what the tweets said; they might as well have been tweeting about college hockey or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” But I guess the important part is that they were tweeting at all.

And even worse is this nonsense about ranking the presidential candidates by how many Twitter followers or Facebook fans they have, as though follows were votes and elections were contested on Twitter. If America worked that way we’d be in Year 8 of the Howard Dean Administration.

I was a Twitter skeptic at first but quickly became a convert, mostly because I use it as a sort of greek chorus on any event I’m watching. Whether it’s the Super Bowl, the Oscars, a presidential debate, the baseball winter meetings or even an episode of a silly reality show, I see Twitter as a way to get the instant reactions of my friends and favorite writers to what is going on, right as it happens.

And that is what most big media companies don’t get: the beauty of Twitter is that you get to choose who you follow. Things you don’t care about don’t get pushed to you, the way they are when they appear as an on-screen crawl or out of the mouths of Rick Sanchez or a Microsoft-retained church choir. These misuses just scream that they’re  the product of network executives who know that Twitter is important but have no idea what it is or how it works. There’s a right place for tweets, and its called Twitter.

So now that Microsoft has performed its last CES opening keynote, rumors are flying over who gets the slot next year. May I suggest Twitter?

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