The good people at Twitter should send a bottle of champagne to Mike Wise.
Wise is the freshly chastised sportswriter from The Washington Post who was suspended last week for taking his company's reputation too lightly when he intentionally used Twitter to post false information on the Web. When Wise keyed in a phony scoop about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger--using a Twitter account that identified Wise as a Washington Post reporter--he was trying to show how some journalists and bloggers will republish unfounded rumors without doing any fact checking. He intended to illustrate the weakness of blogs and social networks as news sources.
Instead, Wise succeeded in highlighting Twitter's importance as an information pipeline.
No, not all the news distributed on the social network is accurate, but what Wise should have realized is that Twitter is just a platform that turns anyone into potential news source. The quality of information varies widely, and it's up to readers to determine the source's credibility. Legions of well-regarded journalists and bloggers use Twitter daily to alert readers to breaking news and provide them with a heads-up about recently published stories.
And it's not just the pros who break news on Twitter. Some of the first reports and photographs about the heroic crash landing of a U.S. Airways commercial jet on New York's Hudson River came from non-professional journalists using Twitter. The first reports about the fatal shooting at Fort Hood in November circulated on Twitter.
Twitter spokesman Matt Graves had this interesting statistic: one quarter of all Twitter posts include a link to another piece of content, such as a news story or video. Twitter has 190 million unique monthly visitors, so that's a lot of content zooming across the platform.
That Twitter is a serious means of news distribution apparently was lost on Wise. In an interview on CNN's "Reliable Sources" TV show on Sunday, Wise acknowledged that he would never have published false information at his newspaper. Wise, who has apologized to his co-workers and bosses at the Post for the incident, appears to now know that the consequences of spreading false stories online are the same as doing it offline.
Certainly, it's hard to fault Wise's conduct in the wake of his goof. He has stood up and admitted his error. He also appears willing to serve as a cautionary tale. During his interview, Wise said that the credibility he built over two decades at such places as The New York Times and the Post was undone in the 15 seconds it took him to type out his fake Twitter post.
"And so," Wise said, "I'm going to find a way to get it back."
Note: Mike Wise and I were co-workers at The Washington Post.