Journalists get a taste of their own medicine when Apple uses their tweets without permission
By now you've probably heard that Apple announced a bunch of new products yesterday. You might also have heard that the company is "getting over its allergy to social media" and that it showed the tech press's disconcerting obsession with gadgets over real issues, if you're the kind of person who cares more about how tech companies are covered than bloviating about a watch.
That last bit came courtesy of Pando's David Holmes, who argued that Apple's decision to pull tweets from tech journalists during yesterday's event to lend some credibility to the large pile of adjectives it applies to all of its new products was a sign of the tech press's priority problem. If the people who are supposed to be holding these companies accountable are just tweeting about new products, he argued, how is anyone going to learn about the darker side of the company?
I mostly agree with David's argument that the tech press needs to get better about reporting on things that don't involve new processors or better displays or "smart" watches. But the idea that Apple sharing tweets from a few journalists somehow makes that issue clear seems strange to me, partly because Apple was unlikely to share tweets critical of its actions anyway, and partly because I think the issue revolves more around the problem with Twitter than with journalism.
Tweets are strange. They're all part of a massive river of information that swells more and more every day, and they're often written like their part in this stream of collective consciousness is assured. But the ability to take tweets and use them outside of their context to illustrate a point, which is what Apple did, means that a tweet can often take on a different meaning or imply something the writer didn't intend.
For example: I tweeted yesterday that "All the tech bloggers are talking about the Apple watch and I'm just over here like 'I love Barnes & Noble'" after I wrote a blog post about that company instead of watching yet another livestream of an Apple announcement. That tweet could have been shared by Barnes & Noble -- would that have compromised my ability to be critical of the company, like I was in my otherwise kind post, or would it have been little more than a fluke?
I'm inclined to believe the latter. I'm also inclined to believe that sharing single tweets poses problems when journalists do it too. Consider the time BuzzFeed published a story about sexual assault victims based on things these victims tweeted -- not with the intention of making it into a BuzzFeed story, but to take part in a larger discussion about sexual assault and the effect it has on women. As I wrote at the time,
The argument for gathering tweets without their poster’s permission is that Twitter is inherently public. Anyone is free to retweet, share, or embed anything they find on the service. The argument against gathering those tweets, especially when they’re about something as personal as sexual assault, is that these are real people sharing real stories that they didn’t expect to see on a website that gets hundreds of millions of pageviews each month. Put another way: Something being technically feasible doesn’t mean that it’s ethically defensible.In that instance, BuzzFeed was on the hook for taking tweets without someone's permission. Now it's Apple taking those tweets and turning them into advertisements even though that's not what the journalists, many of whom were simply "thinking out loud" about big announcements from one of the world's largest tech companies, intended when the tweets were written. Should those journalists be criticized for those tweets, or should we realize that Apple took advantage of Twitter's public nature to twist some journalists' words around by changing their context?
Again, I believe the latter. There is a problem with tech journalism; I don't argue that point for a minute. (I'm sitting here writing about Apple essentially retweeting some journalists, for god's sake.) There's also a problem with how tweets, which can be misappropriated by anyone who wants to copy a link to the damned things, and their place in both advertisements and reports. But in this instance I think that the issues are separate, and that tweeting about an event that many consumers are watching and expecting to see covered in the outlet of their choice is fine.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]