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If You Tweet in a Forest



My thoughts don't go much deeper than the length of this column. Once I think an idea through I'm on to my next thought. But two letters that my March column generated bothered me so much that my brain refuses to move on.

In "Take the Money and Run With It" (March 1), I said that my daughter wants a gong she could bang to interrupt conversation and get a word in. I contrasted that to the power of corporations and wealthy individuals to mass distribute their voices through television advertisements.

The point? Speech you buy is more powerful than speech that costs nothing.

Reader Eric Black of Eureka said that if my daughter wants to spread her ideas to the masses all she needs is a Twitter account. And Cyndy Phillips of McKinleyville added that through e-mail, YouTube and other online communication tools she can reach millions. Well, my daughter has beautiful ideas in her 7-year-old head of cleaning up the earth and feeding poor people. How wonderful the world would be if it only took a Twitter account to spread those messages.

Pick up #litter on the beach, bring #bag to store, walk don't drive, give money to #foodforpeople, and let's all get along.@AnaFernanda.

Here's the problem. An estimated 300 million registered Twitter users send about 175 million tweets every day. On YouTube people view 4 billion videos every day. YouTube boasts that people upload more videos each month than ABC, NBC and CBS combined created in 60 years.

In 1977, 150 million people watched the 12-part miniseries "Roots," about a multigenerational family of black slaves and their descendants. They watched it because it was a riveting show. But they tuned into it in the first place because there wasn't much else on. You didn't have a DVR back then to record and store shows. These days, "Roots" would compete against "The Voice," "NCIS," "Jersey Shore," "Judge Judy" (she still pulls them in!) and anything people have recorded or ordered up from Netflix. None of those top rated shows pulled in more than 20 million viewers.

I won't argue that important messages can't travel the world via Twitter or YouTube. Both media helped lead to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi. Kony 2012 is everywhere. But what's the chance that your revolution-making tweet will penetrate that dense forest of 175 million daily tweets? It would be like winning the Lotto. I think winning the Lotto would be more likely to happen.

Just consider what people view and comment on these days. When I checked earlier this month, the most discussed YouTube video was Justin Bieber performing the song "Baby" with Ludicris. It had 732 million views and 7.8 million comments. Also on the top list was "Questions Every Intelligent Christian Wants to Know," "Super Junior," Lady Gaga and Eminem. The sixth most viewed video was "Charlie Bit My Finger Again" -- about a baby that bit his brother's finger (450 million views and counting!)

Revolution making?

The second most discussed video was a seconds-long one about Sub4Sub, which is a service that will help you generate viewers for your videos and subscribers for your video channel.

To do this you toss your name into a big digital hat. You agree to subscribe to just about anyone's video channel if they will subscribe to yours. It's like a grown up version of playing doctor. I'll look at yours if you look at mine.

But you can generate more subscribers much quicker if you pay Sub4sub. For $60 I could buy 2,000 subscribers in about 24 hours. Or for $440 I could buy 2,000 people who will view it, "like" it and comment on it. Imagine how many VLCs, as they call them, I could get with $4.4 million.

Or let's get back to television. These days, none of the top TV shows get even a sixth of the viewership "Roots" did. But with enough money you could now buy a 30-second ad on seven shows and get that kind of viewership. And you can post it on YouTube and Twitter it for free.

In the presidential election, super PACs have raised more than $200 million so far, according to Opensecrets.org, which compiles election fundraising and spending data. President Obama has raised $191 million. Mitt Romney has raised $87 million. Here in California we won't feel the force that paid speech will have in the presidential election, because our state isn't one of nine swing states. In the nine states that the Washington Post says could go either to Obama or Romney -- Ohio, Nevada, Florida, Iowa, Colorado, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin -- people are going to be blasted with TV, magazine and newspaper ads, robo-calls and billboards, Facebook and Google ads, Twitter posts and YouTube videos and ads on YouTube videos, email spam, ads tacked on to the end of emails, radio ads, door fliers and junk snail mail. Some political hounds estimate that total spending could hit $1 billion. Much of that will be spent in just those nine states.

My daughter's Twitter posts don't have much of a chance against that flood.

There is a dangerous myth that Twitter and Facebook and YouTube foster. That's the idea that because the Internet gives everyone access to a press, we each have the power to communicate our ideas worldwide. We don't have that power. We only have that potential. It isn't the same thing. Corporations and people with money can pay to turn that potential into reality.

Then again, all that money that PACs will spend in the upcoming election might be a waste of time. Ohio residents might be too busy watching Charlie bite fingers to pay much attention to the commercials that air during "Jersey Shore."

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. 


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