When word spread like wildfire on Thursday via Twitter and Facebook that Gordon Lightfoot was dead, and then alive again, it reignited the ongoing debate (even though the original error appears to have been committed by a professional reporter before it leaked to Twitter) about the value of social media as a way to get your news.
One side of that issue was recently explored by four European journalists and one Canadian colleague over a week in a secluded farmhouse in southern France. Without newspapers or radios, the only news they read was received as links on their Facebook or Twitter networks.
They wanted to see how well social media worked as a reporting tool. But the bigger question is how it might affect the general delivery of news to the population at large, and in turn reshape our perceptions of what's going on in the world.
A recent survey commissioned by advertising firm Bensimon Byrne reports that 51 per cent of Canadians who are online visit Facebook and 12 per cent visit Twitter. Though some of this activity must revolve around weekend plans and vanity photographs, that still leaves a significant amount of bandwidth for users passing along information or linking to online articles.
The Globe and Mail has undertaken a study similar to the French experiment, with modifications. As the editors pointed out (and eventually insisted), you don't need to fly to France, not even in economy class, to surf the Web and survey what Twitter and Facebook deliver as daily news.
Our subject used a laptop computer to access Twitter and Facebook whenever work seemed boring. With no hand-held device available, he could not visit sites while in restrooms or driving, possibly skewing the results away from typical user habits.
Our subject unhooked his television antenna and spent three weeks ignoring printed newspapers, limiting radio to classic rock stations and visiting news websites only if prompted through Facebook or Twitter links.
The subject noted a strong current of Olympic-themed posts: Those originating from Vancouver exhibited a strand of local boosterism, but general Olympic content tended toward skepticism, apprehension and anti-establishmentarianism.
A personal post about seeing a midwinter mosquito in balmy Vancouver provided a Facebook counterpoint to mainstream news stories gushing over the subsidized circumvention of Mother Nature (dry-ice tubes sunk into Cypress Mountain, convoys of helicopters ready to deliver snow to green slopes).
Social-media sites spread the news that Clara Hughes had been named Canada's flag bearer and hosted speculation who the final torchbearer would be. Mainstream media proved to be much more timid about fingering No. 99 for the job.
On the culture front, social media actively mourned J.D. Salinger's death. The reclusive author who had little social network of his own was praised across networking sites, where posters expressed simple affection for the man's work. One Twitter poster noted with presumed disappointment: "Great. Now he's going to be even more reclusive."
By comparison, a 1,000-word New York Times obituary explored the man's anti-social idiosyncrasies and personal struggles. Going deeper still was Rick Salutin of The Globe and Mail, who suggested that when mainstream society accepted the phony-hating Mr. Salinger, it may have caused a generation to be alienated from its own alienation.
Not surprisingly, Google's entry into the social-media field with the release of Google Buzz caused a stir on Twitter. While the mainstream media paid modest attention to widespread privacy concerns, Twitter and Facebook activity focused on how the new platform would - or would not - fit into the social-networking universe.
As one Twitter user explained: "Google Buzz is Facebook's estranged, drug-addicted stepsister who eloped with a hideously ugly rich guy named Gmail." A common complaint was that Tweets might take 12 hours before appearing on the new Buzz platform. It was generally agreed that a 12-hour delay made Buzz-bound Tweets as useful as smoke signals, without the pleasing aroma.
And then there was climate change. Using social media to link to selected opinion pieces appeared to be a popular way for people to suggest a blizzard in Washington, D.C., was enough to disprove a vast scientific consensus.
Supporters of new media complained that the French experiment was rigged from the start, designed to confirm the worst stereotypes of social-media news - that it is limited to the narrow interests of a user's peer group and tends toward frivolity by highlighting scandal, suggesting conspiracy and promoting ideologically inflammatory material.
Though our results roughly confirm this view, background research suggests the fault may not lie with the online-network format, but with the particular subject's social network.
Social-media sites, supporters say, can be expanded to include as many good sources of news as the user wants. Not only do many traditional news organizations provide Twitter and Facebook followers with frequent news flashes, there are countless media hounds and social commentators who scour the Web to collect and share diverse or targeted streams of credible news links to the many thousands of people who follow them on Twitter and Facebook.
As Vancouver writer and social media proponent David Eaves observes, "It's asinine to try to define a type of content that is more appropriate for social media versus newspapers, television or radio." It's the individual user that dictates the type of news received - because it's the user that creates the network.
Signing up for Facebook and Twitter without actively seeking out rewarding, insightful, wide-ranging and responsible news sources will leave users with the online equivalent of the magazines lining grocery store cashier queues. As in a grocery store, the best online news isn't always the easiest to find.
Murder by Tweet: The great Lightfoot blackout of 02/18
Blame bounced back and forth between new and old media on Thursday as each accused the other of starting false reports that musician Gordon Lightfoot had died.
The rumour began as a prank phone call to musician Ronnie Hawkins' manager. As Ottawa media consultant Ian Capstick explains, Mr. Hawkins told his wife, Wanda, who spread the news by phone, Facebook and even fax. It hit Twitter mid-afternoon with the post "RIP Gordon Lightfoot" from the (now-deleted) Fleminski account, which belonged to Ottawa resident Rebecca Fleming.
According to Mr. Capstick, CanWest News Service called Ms. Fleming, who pointed them to Wanda Hawkins' Facebook page. A CanWest reporter confirmed the mistaken belief with Ronnie Hawkins by telephone and CanWest issued an in-house news alert, which reporter David Akin relayed to his roughly 2,500 Twitter followers: "Gordon Lightfoot has died, sources close to the singer say."
Tweeters at Roots Music Canada tried to quell rumours by posting: "Gordon Lightfoot was on the phone and fine half an hour ago." But the shipwreck had already happened. Over the next two hours more than 3,000 new Tweets spread the false news. Meanwhile, CanWest newspaper websites had run with their story and before long Gordon Lightfoot was listening to radio reports of his death while driving to a dentist appointment in Toronto.
Roughly an hour after his initial post, Mr. Akin Tweeted that Mr. Lightfoot's manager had denied the rumour. Media retractions followed, and the tide of false Twitter posts gave way to relief, media commentary, and, of course, snappy one-liners.
The Twitter reaction:
"What a day for Canada, 3rd GOLD medal won in Olympics & Gordon Lightfoot un-dies. Who says Canada is boring?"
"Blaming Twitter for spreading the false news of Gordon Lightfoot's death is like blaming trees 4 incorrect newspaper article."
"This just in: Gordon Lightfoot among 6 billion humans NOT dead."
"If You Could Read My Obit: Gordon Lightfoot comeback song."
"I'll never forget where I was when I heard Gordon Lightfoot was alive."
"It might have been more believable if Gordon Lightfoot had tweeted about the National Post's demise. Just sayin'."
"Headline: Canada media still learning Twitter. In related news: Gordon Lightfoot still not dead."
"Does this mean Lent is over? The resurrection of Gordon Lightfoot - bring on the choco bunnies."
"Gordon Lightfoot's condition upgraded to 'alive.' "
"I just learned that Gordon Lightfoot is still alive before I had even heard he had died."