Every four years, we come together as a nation, united by a common purpose. We all want to bag on NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics. NBC’s promos are too mushy. Its talking heads are too pro-American. The sports are too, um, delayed. Twitter, home of the hashtag #NBCFail, is now the place we go faster, higher, snarkier. Americans might hate-watch the Oscars, we might pound our keyboards during the Super Bowl, but only at the sight of Bob Costas and company do we speak with such a homicidal, enraged voice.
Second, Salon’s Michael Barthel digs through LexisNexis and confirms that there are always stories about NBC tape delays. It’s just that this year there are a lot more of them (a projected 546 by the end of the week versus 38 during the entire 1992 Barcelona games).
[W]hat seems to be happening is that editors are monitoring Twitter, seeing that the tape delay issue is a much bigger news story than they thought, and consequently running far more news stories about it than they ever had before. In some ways, this would seem to confirm the utopian idea that the Internet gives consumers unprecedented power to talk back to big corporations and get them to correct faulty products, whether those be electronics or media coverage. But… Twitter is an unrepresentative sample of the population. If the higher volume of news stories about tape delay is being driven by the prevalence of the issue on Twitter, then this is not correcting news coverage. Rather, it is being distorted by a biased and self-interested group of technological elites. Twitter is serving as a “virtual public” for journalists eager to give the public what they want. But the virtual public seems to be far different from the real one.
Barthel’s critique then is that Twitter isn’t a representative demographic that news editors should necessarily follow. Instead, it’s a “virtual public” rather than an “actual public” and that virtual public is a well healed, technologically savvy one.
While the larger point of not mistaking the virtual for the actual holds, Twitter’s demographics have largely flattened. If you take a look at the Pew Internet May 2012 Survey you see that the largest percentage of users within groups are those making less than $30,000 per year, or are non-Hispanic blacks, or are between the age of 18 and 29.
So it’s not that Twitter is still the playground of a “self-interested group of technological elites.” It’s that users cluster on Twitter how they unfortunately cluster most everywhere: like follows like and we end up in an echo chamber.
For example, media and technology people follow media and technology people and in doing so are rubbing up against the same links, trends and sentiments. And that’s where our editors get into trouble with a quick look — rather than an in-depth analysis — of what’s happening in social media. There are too many people who’ve insulated themselves inside likeminded thought bubbles.
I bring this back to Bryan Curtis though for a last word. Our #NBCFail issue is that innocently enough we can believe in the Olympic ideal. The reality though is that that ideal can’t be commercially met:
We go ballistic on NBC because we get snowed by the Olympics ideal. We want to believe in “faster, higher, stronger.” In an internationalist jamboree in which the director of the Trainspotting toilet scene salutes the National Health Service. The Olympic ideal might be sanctimonious, and built on a mountain of financial bullshit, but it’s an appealing ideal all the same.
It has nothing, however, to do with NBC. The network paid $1.2 billion for the broadcast rights to the London Games. It’s got to use every trick — tape delay, schmaltz — to recoup its investment. If we get mad at NBC, it’s because we’re staring at the giant gap between ideal and reality. It disappoints us to learn that, for NBC, the Olympics serves the exact same purpose as Sunday Night Football.