Uber: For better or worse, this is the way the media works now

Every once in a while, I think it’s worthwhile to step back and look at just how much the media landscape has changed in a relatively short time — and the latest example of that is the growing controversy over the behavior of some Uber executives, who appear to be threatening journalists and possibly using data on their customers in ways it was never intended to be used. Whatever you think about the company’s actions, it has been fascinating to watch the story unfold.

Some comments on Tuesday from Spencer Rascoff, CEO of real estate service Zillow, got me thinking about this again: in a series of tweets, Rascoff noted that the Uber story has been developing in real time through social platforms like Twitter, on blogs and through new-media outlets like BuzzFeed — which has been out front on the story from the beginning — and only secondarily through traditional media like the New York Times.

It’s easy to forget that Twitter and Facebook and blogs haven’t always existed, and that CEOs of companies and venture-capital investors in those companies haven’t always been able to comment on or respond to accusations or criticism so quickly and easily. But the impact of this phenomenon — which blogging pioneer Dave Winer has called “the sources going direct” — is undeniable, and arguably growing.

Sources go direct

Om wrote about this in 2012, after Jack Dorsey blogged about his diminished role at Twitter, and Mark Zuckerberg wrote about some new developments at Facebook on his personal page. It’s getting so if a CEO or founder doesn’t tweet or blog, it seems unusual — even suspect. In many cases, this is where news starts now, and that has changed a journalist’s job in more ways than many realize.

“There is a blurring of the line between what is news and what is a tweet, photo or a blog post. In other words, it is a kind of mosh pit of data and information — and that means the role of media is changing.”

So is this a good thing or a bad thing? That depends a lot on your perspective. Obviously if you’re the New York Times or some other traditional news outlet, it’s probably not a good thing, because you aren’t prepared for it and it takes time to realize that you don’t “make” the news any more, or at least not as much. Many journalists resist this new role as aggregator or interpreter because they liked being a gatekeeper.

It’s not clear whether this democratization of distribution (as Om has called it) is a good thing in terms of the way that we perceive or understand a complicated story. Does having people like Uber investor Ashton Kutcher tweet about the controversy help or harm our understanding of that story? Does a “tweetstorm” from CEO Travis Kalanick actually help, or is it just a cop-out compared to a more formal apology? Which is more useful?

The kind of outrage that incidents like Uber or the shooting in Ferguson trigger — or the uprising in Ukraine, to use another recent example — can be beneficial in so many ways, because it can actually help encourage or foment change. But this kind of social-media event can also be a distraction, in the sense that people tweeting or retweeting think they are accomplishing something when they really aren’t. Will a hashtag about boycotting Uber really change anything?

Is more always better?

University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has written about the influence that social media had on incidents like the revolution in Egypt in 2011, raised this question after the upheaval in Turkey earlier this year: Twitter was a crucial tool for activists to spread the word about the government’s misbehavior, but it also may have sapped some of the energy that would once have gone into actually making real political change happen.

“What if the new power that social media gives ordinary citizens is also part of the new problem? What if the very abilities of social media — ad-hoc but powerful capacity for organizing and logistics — lead to shortcomings which then hobble movements, at least in the short to medium term?”

In the end, I think having CEOs and VCs and even presidents and armies tweeting or blogging is good, in the sense that more information is almost always good — even if the source of that information is trying to spin public opinion, or avoid making real decisions that will have actual impact. The unfiltered (or barely filtered) nature of this kind of communication is arguably better than the days when we got all of our news from a couple of mainstream sources.

The risk is that this endless supply of sources — many with biases and agendas of their own — also leads to more noise, and more confusion, and sorting through it all in real time becomes harder and harder. A good reason why we need more journalists (professional or otherwise) than we ever have before.