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The Bird's the Word: What Does Celebrity Reporting on Twitter Say About Those of Us Who Follow Them?

Artist unknown

Apparently, American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert was the most influential tweeter on Haiti, and Conan O’Brien and Ricky Martin reigned atop the list of those commenting on the Chilean miner saga. Sorry CNN, NPR, et. al.

Who do you think were the most influential reporters on major news stories in 2010?

If you said the New York Times, CNN, and NPR, you’d be mostly right. But to be completely correct, you’d need to include another triumvirate: Lambert, O’Brien and Martin. If those names aren’t ringing a bell, it’s because they’re not really reporters; they’re pop-culture luminaries with active Twitter accounts. The researchers behind analyzed the recently released Top Twitter Trends of 2010 to see how topics such as the Haitian earthquake, Gulf oil spill and Chilean miner rescue were covered on the social-media platform. According to their data – which ranks tweeters based on how many followers they have and how much interest they and their followers show in a particular topic – American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert was actually the most influential tweeter on Haiti, and Conan O’Brien and Ricky Martin reigned atop the list of those commenting on the Chilean miner saga.

While it’s hard to really define “influence” in this context – and in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I currently work at Northwestern’s engineering school, the researchers’ home base – it’s also difficult to deny that these celebrities really do have a major audience hanging on their every word. O’Brien (@conanobrien) and Martin (@ricky_martin) boast more than two million followers each, while Lambert (@adamlambert) has around 815,000 people keeping track of his activities, which, at the time of this writing, included deciding whether or not to shave (spoiler: he did).

In case anyone was about to rant about the lack of seriousness of the Twitter audience, it should be noted that the New York Times (@nytimes) beats everyone with over 2.8 million followers. So it’s not solely a numbers game. The rankings appear to indicate that followers of these stars are more likely to share (aka re-Tweet) and further comment on their Tweets somewhat more than those of established news organizations.

Why might this be the case? An examination of the 140-character messages the celebs were actually typing sheds some light on the situation. Martin is probably the most consistent and impassioned among the three, repeating the #FuerzaMineros hashtag several times throughout the saga (just one of many social issues he Tweets about). His emotional Tweet on the day of their rescue: “CHI CHI CHI LE LE LE!!!! VENGA!!!! #FUERZAMINEROS”. O’Brien, unsurprisingly, took a more humorous tack. On 7 October 2010, he wrote: “The Chilean Miners could be released this weekend…just in time to see Michael Bolton sing on DWTS. Guys, what’s an extra day?” Following the rescue on 14 October, he noted that the mine was found to be “a rich source of ‘man-stank.’”

Lambert’s messages over the six weeks following the Haiti earthquake offered an effective mix of personal pleas for donations, notes of thanks to donors, re-Tweets of related messages and promotion of how his and others’ music was helping the cause.

I’d actually argue that the content is secondary in this situation, overshadowed by something more difficult to see: a strong connection unrelated to these major events. Where the New York Times (which, as the numbers show, is not exactly hurting) would obviously be a better source of information on news topics, the news organization, for all its great work, may find it more difficult to create much of a day-to-day relationship with those members of the Twitter public who are mainly on the platform to interact with friends – whether the real or virtual kind. It’s not so hard to understand that when news breaks, those “friends” are going to be the ones whose reactions they seek out – and perhaps internalize – most often. In this increasingly fragmented media landscape, we expect to be able to get our news wherever we choose to be and whoever we choose to listen to.

Back in October, I was part of a panel at Loyola University’s News Literacy and Digital Citizenship Initiative, a conference aimed at arming teachers with the tools to educate students about becoming more knowledgeable consumers of news and entertainment on the web. I’m not a teacher, but I have seen firsthand how hard it is to convince web users to do something they don’t want to do. Much of my presentation concerned the idea that with the increasing amounts of content available to us online, the need was greater than ever for some kind of trusted source to guide users to the good stuff.

This curation can take many forms, from RSS feeds of favorite blogs, to link aggregators like Digg and Reddit, to things like PopMatters’ Moving Citations, to personal networks of friends on Facebook and Twitter. Most of us have some pattern of sites we visit regularly, and these trusted sources become influential to how we form opinions and make choices. The obvious – and oft-cited -- drawback of experiencing the world through such a filter is that you might miss something, whether intentionally (say, a hardcore liberal shutting out all contradictory political views) or unintentionally.

In a perfect world, these curators would only be a first stop. Someone like Adam Lambert or Stephen Colbert piques your interest in a topic, and inspires you to seek out more information from a more comprehensive news source. That’s admittedly idealistic, but it’s a reason why major news organizations like the New York Times will continue to have a role: to provide needed depth. After all, as they’re often quick to point out, much of the content that curators provide can almost always be traced back to an old-media source. What may not survive, however, are the intermediate publications like Newsweek and Time, which, as Clive Thompson pointed out in a recent Wired piece, provide neither the necessary depth nor that immediate, conversational connection.

I’ve always been a little conflicted about artists getting atop soapboxes; on the one hand, their sense of responsibility is admirable, but on the other, should we really care what they think? This new reality seems to imply that yes, we should – because enough other people do. As social media theorist Clay Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody, “everyone is a media outlet", from the lowliest blogger to the top international news organization to, yes, the celebrity with the massive Twitter following.

The influence of popular artists on the general public is certainly nothing new, but their power has increased exponentially online, as evidenced by the recent “Digital Death” campaign. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see even more celebrities atop next year’s influential Tweeters list, and, one day in the future, even begin to see them as legitimate sources. Can you hear opportunity knocking, future economic correspondent @MCHammer?

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