When it comes to understanding the advantages of being proactive and knowledgeable about social media, is it a cause for concern that broadcaster Piers Morgan ‘gets it’ more than screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and David Simon, respectively creators of The West Wing and The Wire, two of the most celebrated and influential shows in modern television history?
And does it also matter that Sorkin, who penned the critically-acclaimed Mark Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network, has not only now quit Facebook, but by his own admittance didn’t know anything about social media when he started writing the film?
Morgan, who hosts the Piers Morgan Tonight talk show on CNN, spoke to Sorkin and Simon yesterday at Cannes Lions in a keynote supposedly about the golden age of television, but the juicier insights came from the group’s discussion of social media, and the benefits therein. Morgan has been active on Twitter for less than a year, but already seems to have a firm grip on the value of the platform, certainly for broadcasters and others in the public eye. He pointed to the impact that a tweet about an interview with Charlie Sheen on his chatshow had on the TV audience – CNN analysed the viewing figures immediately after the tweet was sent, and estimated that an additional half a million people tuned in.
“One tweet which cost me nothing,” he said. “It was a fascinating example of the power of a social network to influence television.”
Morgan’s praise wasn’t shared by his guests, who ranged from dismissive to concerned in their comments. Perhaps the biggest revelation from the interview was the admittance from Sorkin, who described himself as “just this side of luddite”, that he wasn’t exactly au fait with social media before he started writing The Social Network. “I’d barely heard of Facebook. I’d heard of it the way I’d heard of a carburettor.”
Not that it seemed to matter, as the film was a critical smash. Justifiably so. But after creating a Facebook profile to “find out what it was all about”, he later quit. Why? “Because of a couple of stalker-like people.”
Sorkin at least threw a bone in Twitter’s direction. “I know Twitter can be interesting – the night we got Bin Laden, the president came on TV about 11.30, but we all knew that this was happening because of social media”, he said, before adding, “I have a lot of opinions on social media that make me sound like a grumpy old man sitting on the porch yelling at kids.”
David Simon was even more critical of Twitter, notably in the way he sees the real-time, bite-sized delivery mechanism of the network having a negative impact on the way we process news.
“I have seen the immediacy of news gathering and information go to the extreme of Twitter and 24-hour cable,” said Simon. “You get everything you want when you want it but the lack of explanatory journalism to back it up, the lack of dialogue… the dialogue has suffered. I can find out everything faster as a headline. Life is complicated. In a Twitter feed or 24-hour TV coverage you can’t explain the complexity of a drug war. I’m worried about the high end of journalism.”
Morgan, for his part, was bullish about the use of Twitter as a feed for information.
“Twitter has become my primary news source,” he said, explaining that the network is actually a huge boon to television networks because tweets about breaking news from CNN make people like him reach for the TV remote.
Fundamentally, and they might well agree, I think it’s fair to say that neither Sorkin nor Simon have much (certainly non-research) experience with social networks and probably are a little guilty of letting their naivety and ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ approach to modern technology and the way information is shared get the better of their otherwise learned opinion. They’re certainly not unique in this line of thinking – other very-learned dinosaurs have come before them and also been dismissive about the value of social channels. As I’ve said many times before, Twitter isn’t and never will be a replacement for news. It’s simply a new and incredibly powerful way to share information. Moreover, people have always been guilty of headline-reading. That certainly isn’t Twitter’s doing, or fault. Or problem. For those of us who understand this, the service is an asset of considerable worth.
For me, it’s a shame about Sorkin in particular. I’ve been watching The West Wing from the beginning in recent weeks and at many times I’ve wondered about how he would have written Twitter into the show had it been set perhaps ten years later. Now I realise that he may have downplayed it, or even mishandled everything.
Or would he? One only has to look at the rich tapestry that was The Social Network to see that you don’t always have to be in it to get it, which says a lot for Sorkin’s ability as a writer, but I think it’s reasonable to say that it certainly doesn’t hurt. I’m hopeful that, like many others who have expressed their doubts, both he and Simon will eventually come around.