Twitter really isn’t the digital town square, but it might as well be the newsroom coffee counter

A blue pin handed out at the 2012 Online News Association conference, photographed on a piece of lined paper, reads "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12"

When Twitter’s management accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy the company for about $44 billion–a sentence that still makes me pause and think “wait, really?”–the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire called his upcoming property “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

That two-word phrase comes up in a lot in discussions of this compressed-prose, collective-angst platform that a dozen years ago I had to define for readers as a “San Francisco-based microblogging service.”

Twitter’s own management has liked to call the service a town square of own sort or another. Obsessive coverage of the Twitter habits of certain boldface names (case in point: @elonmusk) suggests as much. And many complaints over Twitter exercising its right and business obligation to moderate content assumes that you have the same right to tweet something–meaning have Twitter spend its computing, network and human resources to “use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute” your output–as you would in a physical town square in the U.S.

But the Pew Research Center’s surveys of social-media habits have consistently revealed a more humble reality: Just 23 percent of American adults use Twitter, far below the 81 percent on YouTube, the 69 percent on Facebook or even the 31 percent on Pinterest and the 28 percent on LinkedIn. And Twitter’s share has essentially stayed flat in that Washington-based non-profit’s surveys, with the service’s high point being an almighty 24 percent in 2018.

It is entirely possible to live a rich, meaningful online social life without being on Twitter. It’s also possible to exercise considerable political power without being on Twitter–Donald Trump’s expulsion from that and every other mainstream social platform after his January 6, 2021 self-coup attempt has not stopped the Republican Party from wrapping itself around its own axle over the guy.

Journalists, however, may be another matter. Many of us flocked to the site early on because of its utility as a public notebook and for communication with readers and sources (it took longer for some us, meaning me, to realize how Twitter could also empower distributed abuse), its self-promotional possibilities (which can turn self-destructive when editors fall for bad-faith campaigns to attack journalists who fail to perform like story-sharing automatons on Twitter), and for the way its brevity allows us the chance to pretend we’re headline writers for New York tabloid newspapers. And, especially over the last two years, it’s become a valuable online substitute for the work chit-chat that once took place at a newsroom coffee counter–or, after work, at a nearby bar.

Twitter’s own outreach to journalists, as seen in that souvenir from the 2012 Online News Association conference and in such favors as the service verifying me in 2014 basically because I asked nicely enough times, has also played a role in that popularity.

I’d miss those things if Musk runs Twitter into the ground, as seems a real possibility given how often he’s suggested that Twitter’s real problem is not keeping up everything that’s not actually banned by U.S. law. A logical outcome of that would be making such First Amendment-protected trash like Holocaust denial and ISIS propaganda safe on Twitter, although I am keeping my mind open to more optimistic possibilities.

But I’ve also been online for almost three decades and I’ve seen much bigger allegedly essential online platforms fade into irrelevance. Should Twitter come to that, I imagine I and other journalists will do what we usually do when we meet some occupational obstacle: swear a lot and then figure out some other way to do the job.

Weekly output: Nielson streaming-spend study, Apple TV+ + MLB, SpaceX so far, FIFA+, Netflix double thumbs-up, CNN+ viewership, VR interest, Stellantis + Qualcomm, Mark Vena podcast, new Amazon CEO shareholder letter

Happy Easter! I hope this holiday’s message of reborn life resonates in Ukraine in particular.

(Patreon FYI: Readers there got a bonus post about a few shopping tactics that can let you buy an Apple gadget below list price.)

4/11/2022: Nielsen study shows most streaming viewers spend $30 or less, FierceVideo

I spent the first three days of the week filling in at my trade-pub video-industry client, starting with this writeup of some Nielsen research.

4/11/2022: Apple TV+ debuts Friday Night Baseball, FierceVideo

I used this post to share my own review of Apple’s baseball-coverage venture, as viewed during Friday’s Nationals-Mets game.

Fast Company SpaceX history post4/12/2022: How SpaceX came to dominate the launch business, Fast Company

I knew that a lot of aerospace-establishment types were skeptical of SpaceX a dozen years ago, but digging up their actual quotes was something else.

4/12/2022: FIFA makes a new bid for soccer fans with FIFA+ streaming, FierceVideo

If any sports organization can afford to bankroll a streaming service and then let anybody watch for free, it would be FIFA.

4/12/2022: Netflix adds double-thumbs-up option for rave reviews, FierceVideo

Remember: Don’t call this new Netflix review option “two thumbs up,” because that’s a trademarked Ebert & Siskel phrase.

4/13/2022: Report cites fewer than 10,000 daily viewers for CNN+, FierceVideo

Maybe CNN’s subscription streaming service would have more paying viewers if the news was less depressing?

4/13/2022: Adults remain uninterested in VR live events, FierceVideo

The Morning Consult survey that I wrote up referred to virtual reality as “the metaverse,” but I was not going to use Facebook’s preferred word in the headline or lede if I could help it.

4/14/2022, Stellantis Partners With Qualcomm for 5G-Connected Cars, PCMag

Writing up this connected-car news allowed me to use some leftover notes from Qualcomm’s Tech Summit and then from CES.

4/14/2022: S02 E16 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I joined this podcast (also available in video form) via my laptop, once again using my phone’s camera in place of the laptop’s webcam.

4/15/2022: In First Shareholder Letter, Amazon CEO Sticks With the Bezos Playbook, PCMag

I made a point of noting the things new Amazon CEO Andy Jassy didn’t mention in his first letter to shareholders.

Weekly output: smartphone plans, online misinformation, Twitter perceptions, SpaceX Starship, cord cutting stats, online-privacy bill

I have a short workweek followed by my first family-reunion Thanksgiving in two years.

Patreon readers got an extra post this week: a look at my attempts to ensure that the panels on which I speak aren’t filled out by people who look more or less like me.

Wirecutter phone-plans guide, as seen in Chrome on a Pixel 3a Android phone11/15/2021 The Best Cell Phone Plans, Wirecutter

This update–the first substantial revision to this guide since the summer of 2020–should not have taken this long, but it’s been a trying year for everybody.

11/15/2021: How Do You Combat Online Misinformation? Katie Couric, Prince Harry Have Some Ideas, PCMag

I wrote about a report on online misinformation from an unusual group of experts.

11/15/2021: We Read Twitter for Entertainment, Trust It for News (Unless We Vote Republican), PCMag

This post covered a pair of Pew Research Center studies about people’s attitudes towards Twitter. The most susprising finding: how many Twitter users misunderstood their own privacy settings.

11/18/2021: Elon Musk’s Starship rocket may launch to orbit in January, Fast Company

The SpaceX founder was scheduled to speak for 30 minutes but spent more than twice as much time at this virtual National Academy of Science meeting. I could have filed a vastly longer story, but I didn’t want to write myself into a bad per-word rate.

11/18/2021: Cord Cutting’s Latest Toll: 1.34 Million Legacy Pay-TV Subscribers Gone, PCMag

I decided to write up this report on pay-TV subscriptions by comparing the numbers involved to cities. Hence: “The top seven cable operators combined to lose 700,500 subscribers, a figure you may find easier to visualize as ‘almost the population of Denver’.”

11/19/2021: Who Owns Your Data? Calif. Congresswomen Try Again With Online Privacy Act, PCMag

The Online Privacy Act reintroduced by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D.-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D.-Calif.) seems to get a lot of things right, but it lands in a Congress that seems singularly incapable of passing even incremental privacy upgrades.

Weekly output: Gmail storage management, ShowStoppers TV, Starlink reality check, ClearStory Connects

Happy Fourth! This year’s Independence Day is so much better than last year’s.

Screenshot of column as seen in USAT's iPad app6/28/2021: With Google’s new limit on free data storage, don’t forget your Gmail inbox. It could be stuffed, USA Today

This column started, as many do, with tech support for a relative: My mom was nearing the 15-gigabyte cap on her Google account, and almost all of that was the fault of various e-mail marketers unwilling to shut up.

6/28/2021: MWC 2021, ShowStoppers

I emceed this virtual demo event for companies looking to get some publicity out of this year’s mostly-virtual Mobile World Congress trade show. It was fun, but I would have rather been in Barcelona.

6/30/2021: Elon Musk says Starlink’s satellite internet is probably not for you, Fast Company

My own MWC coverage consisted of this writeup of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s reality-check interview at MWC (he also appeared remotely), in which he splashed cold water on some Starlink hopes while also not addressing a few concerns about that low-Earth-orbit satellite-broadband network.

7/2/2021: ClearStory Connects, ClearStory International

This Dublin-based PR firm had me on a video call to talk about my work and what I find works and doesn’t work in tech marketing. Spoiler alert: The “any interest?” follow-up remains unlikely to close any deals for me.

Weekly output: Elon Musk, PGA Tour, FuboTV, inflight WiFi

This week began with my leaving the house two days in a row for work events–an experience I may next have sometime in April–and ended with the cancellation of conferences in Dallas and Miami at which I was going to moderate panels and would have had my travel expenses covered in return. Well, things could be worse.

Patreon members got an extra post from me: a recap of a really dumb thing I did on my home network that briefly took out our VoIP home phone service.

3/10/2020: Elon Musk: ‘I hope I’m not dead by the time people go to Mars’, Fast Company

I attended the Satellite 2020 trade show in Washington largely to see the Musk keynote that wrapped up the show Monday afternoon. Yes, that means I spent an hour and a half in a packed room with hundreds of other people; no, I have not exhibited COVID-19 symptoms.

3/10/2020: PGA Tour’s new rights deal adds ESPN+, FierceVideo

I covered breaking news at my favorite trade-pub client Monday. My first post covered the nine-year rights deal the PGA Tour announced that morning, and which is already worth a good deal less since the entirety of pro sports is on hold until the novel coronavirus ebbs.

3/10/2020: FuboTV adds MLB and NHL channels, FierceVideo

My second post at Fierce also covered sports on television, in the form of the streaming-TV service Fubo adding two channels that now have no games to air.

3/11/2020: One small perk of the coronavirus outbreak: Faster airplane Wi-Fi, Fast Company

I wrote this the week before after covering the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Aviation Summit, a daylong conference that featured a panel about inflight connectivity as well as industry executives voicing concerns about “booking softness” that now seem woefully understated. Another thing that’s aged badly: the headline on this piece.

Weekly output: tech backlash at SXSW, Elon Musk, Avatar XPrize, Austin package bombings, Waymo, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook

Another South By Southwest in the books (see my Flickr album), but despite moments like my getting retweeted by Mark Hamill, this one wasn’t as much fun as the six before it. The fourth item below should explain why.

3/12/2018: Tech gets a skeptical look at SXSW, USA Today

I wrote a longer-than-usual column from Austin about “techlash,” as seen in panels and a few interviews I snagged. The one with Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) happened by dumb luck: After having my exit from the Hilton delayed by a scrum of people around Arnold Schwarzenegger (no, really), I realized that the congressman was among them, so I recorded a quick conversation as we walked towards the escalator.

3/12/2018: Elon Musk: Mars will be great, if AI doesn’t kill us first, Yahoo Finance

Musk’s Sunday appearance was a late-breaking addition to the SXSW schedule–the e-mail advising journalists about the 7 a.m. deadline to put in for a press pass landed after 10 p.m. Saturday, when I was not in a fit state to do anything with e-mail. So I watched his appearance as you could have: on the SXSW live stream.

3/13/2018: There’s a $10 million race to build you a robot avatar by 2021, Yahoo Finance

Monday’s talk by XPrize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis was a dose of unadulterated tech utopianism.

3/13/2018: Austin package explosions: City on edge as police seek clues, USA Today

Monday evening, my USAT editor called to ask if I could pitch in to help cover the three package bombings around Austin, so I spent much of Tuesday afternoon taking a car2go to two of those sites and getting quotes from neighbors. The last time I knocked on random doors for a story was in late 2011, and the last time I did any reporting from a law-enforcement situation may have been August of 1998–when a woman survived trying to kill herself by jumping in front of the Metro train I was taking to work.

3/15/2018: Google’s self-driving Waymo cars will be picking you up soon, Yahoo Finance

Although Waymo CEO John Krafcik had a panel Tuesday morning, I waited to write this until after his Tuesday-evening appearance with comedian Adam Carolla–which made the post a lot more fun. Listen to Carolla’s podcast to hear his quizzing of Krafcik, including the “morgue mode” riff I mentioned in the post and a urethra reference that my editor cut to avoid giving our readers the heebie-jeebies.

3/17/2018: Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, Al Jazeera

The Arabic news channel had me on Saturday afternoon to discuss the grotesque abuse of Facebook’s apps regime by a contractor for the Trump-connected research firm Cambridge Analytica. My spot comes up just after the 12-minute walk; if you can speak Arabic, please let me know if the translation adequately conveys my disgust at Facebook’s tardy response.

Weekly output: Falcon Heavy (x2), family-plan wireless math, Strava privacy, Web-site defacements, Tech Night Owl

This week was more exciting than most: I returned to the Kennedy Space Center for the first time since 2011 to see the liftoff of the most powerful rocket to leave American soil since 1973. I still can’t quite believe that I pulled that off… but I have the photos I took around Launch Complex 39A and the audio of the launch I recorded from the KSC press site to remind me that I did.

2/6/2018: SpaceX successfully launches the world’s most powerful rocket, Yahoo Finance

Two posts about the Falcon Heavy appeared at this Web address. The first was a curtain-raiser I filed late Monday explaining the significance of the Falcon Heavy. The second was a launch story–written in advance so I only had to add descriptions of the liftoff and the subsequent landing of the outer first-stage boosters–that my editors subbed in Tuesday afternoon. I also had a third post mostly ready that you didn’t read: a just-in-case piece about an unsuccessful launch that became irrelevant minutes after 3:45 p.m. Tuesday.

If you didn’t get a chance to see the pre-launch story at Yahoo, you can still read it at the Internet Archive, as shown in the screengrab above.

2/7/2018: The family cell-phone bill: How to find savings on shared wireless plans, USA Today

A reader complained that last week’s USAT column on cheaper alternatives to unlimited data for a smartphone didn’t offer any insight about saving money on shared-use family plans. Dear reader: story assignment accepted.

2/7/2018: The Strava social exercise app can reveal your home address, Yahoo Finance

I was grateful for this chance to redeem my prior Strava coverage: a study by a mobile-security firm that revealed how that exercise-tracking app’s geofenced privacy options can pinpoint a Strava user’s home address instead of obscuring it.

2/10/2018: Kuwait interior-ministry site hacked, Al-Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on to talk (overdubbed live into Arabic) about a recent episode of a hacker in Saudi Arabia defacing the site of Kuwait’s Interior Ministry. There’s a long history of this kind of digital vandalism, and fortunately the host mainly asked me about that instead of Gulf politics.

2/10/2018: February 10, 2018 — Kirk McElhearn and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

I talked with host Gene Steinberg about the Falcon Heavy launch, Strava’s privacy issues and Apple’s new HomePod speaker. Gene’s other guest was Kirk McElhearn, who’s long been among my favorite Apple reporters.

Weekly output: When tech reviews go wrong (x2), TV show streams, Lightning cables

In addition to the stories below, I was on the local news this week–but not for anything related to my work. A WJLA correspondent and cameraman were looking for quotes from passerby in Ballston about the possible sequestration budget cuts, and an optimistic sentence or two from me showed up on Monday’s broadcast.

2/13/2013: When The Gadget You Review Can Also Review Your Work, Disruptive Competition Project

In the first of two posts about Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk’s attack on a negative review of the Model S by New York Times reporter John Broder, I looked at how the rise of social media and the ability of connected devices and apps to log a journalist’s use change the dynamic between reviewer and review. For more thoughts along those lines, see Dan Frommer and Mathew Ingram.

2/15/2013: How Breakthrough Technology Can Get Beaten Up In The Press, Disruptive Competition Project

After reading enough comments accusing Broder of being a liar, a shill or worse (as opposed to placing too much trust in tech support from Tesla executives that normal drivers wouldn’t get anyway), I followed up by unpacking some real reasons why the media can misread disruptive technology so badly. One example: my first review of the iPad.

USAT Web-only TV column2/17/2013: Why are some TV show streams web-only?, USA Today

Months ago, my column briefly mentioned the uselessness of ESPN’s WatchESPN app: Unlike its site of the same name, that program doesn’t let us watch ESPN3. I exchanged a few e-mails with PR reps for the sports network about that, then had an excuse to revisit the gap between Web and app availability of online video after getting annoyed by 30 Rock’s absence from Hulu’s mobile and connected-TV apps.

The column also shares advice (hat tip, MacRumors and Lifehacker) about getting non-Apple Lightning cables for less at Amazon and Monoprice. Why so few alternatives so long after the debut of that connector? Apple engineered Lightning to enforce a sort of DRM on the accessories market, as the New York Times’ Brian X. Chen explained this week.

On Sulia, I shared my skepticism about the latest connected-watch fad (now with more Apple rumors!), discussed the unsettling but unavoidable PR trend of enticing reporters with all the Web traffic the agency or the client’s social-media channels can send to a post, and noted how Microsoft’s checkbook hasn’t been able to buy enough updates to the Windows Phone Foursquare client it hired an outside developer to write. You also would have gotten a preview of Wednesday’s post on Monday; Sulia’s more generous character count made it a better place than Twitter to sketch out that story idea.