When old media and new media combine forces… the result is an Olympics-sized disaster

twitter nbc olympics censorshipBack in June, Twitter formally unveiled its plan to court big advertisers with its branded event coverage. The platform showed off the promotional tools it was capable of offering during the Pocono 400, even taking out some commercial airtime during the event to announce its new hashtag pages.

Clearly, Twitter wanted the world to know it was moving full steam ahead on this advertising and marketing thing – and rightly so, given that the Olympics were mere months away.

Now we’re in the thick of it, and obviously the thick of it isn’t going all that smoothly. Between less than acceptable racial tweets from athletes, technical problems due to overuse, and the overwhelming friction caused by NBC’s delayed broadcast and the very nature of the real time social network, it’s just a mess.

And it’s a mess that many pundits’ instincts tell them to blame on Twitter, for a few reasons (not all of which are entirely wrong – but as it often goes with messy things, there’s so much gray area and issue overlap here that we can’t entirely point the finger at Twitter). So before I get to the “in defense of Twitter” section of this argument, I want to acknowledge something they did that’s very, very wrong: they forgot the user.

For everything wrong with Twitter, pointedly its inherent inability to clearly define the value and purpose of the Verified Status and the spamming and scamming problems it gives life to, it’s been incredibly proactive when it comes to censorship. Between transparency reports detailing governments’ user information requests and the company’s very admirable attempts to keep Wikileak’s Twitter info out of the fed’s hands. And that’s why it’s caught us all off guard how blatant its being about silencing NBC critic Guy Adams (here is Twitter’s just-issued response, for the record).

If you aren’t up to speed, here’s the short story about Guy Adams: he’s a British journalist who used Twitter over the past week to air his criticisms concerning NBC’s Olympics coverage. He was extremely vocal about his distaste for how the network has been running the event, to say the least. And then suddenly, his account was suspended. According to Twitter, that’s because he tweeted the email address of an NBC executive, which violates the service’s privacy policy (it forbids the posting “of another person’s private and confidential information”). There’s also the fact that Twitter is the one that turned NBC’s attention to Adams. 

His account has since been reinstated. As Adams explains via Twitter, he received the following email from the service:

“We have just received an update from the complainant retracting their original request… Therefore your account has been unsuspended.”

There’s no denying that Twitter made a major misstep here, likely because of its partnership with NBC. There’s been some argument about whether or not the released email address in question was public or private to begin with, but the point is moot considering that Twitter is a private company and can decide what is and isn’t in violation of its terms. But it decided wrong: it sided with a corporation and not with a user. Funny thing about users, they don’t like it when a service they patron does that.

Twitter is going through a personality change; it’s evolving into a media company and it wants to get in good with big brands and enterprises. Its recent decision to once again distance itself from third-party developers was part of this. And while you don’t have to love that, you do have to accept it… if you want to keep using Twitter, that is.

It’s a difficult transition because Twitter has been so indebted to users and outside developers in the past; it was the little Web app that could and it took over the world. So censoring Guy Adams was wrong, but it certainly lines up with the moves Twitter has been making. It’s going corporate, and its allegiance went to NBC.

All this said, NBC needs share a hefty — and larger — load of the blame. It isn’t Twitter’s fault that it’s full of event spoilers, it’s NBC’s fault for deciding to tape-delay for primetime’s sake (side note: who partners with a real time sharing network after knowingly deciding to delay coverage? Was this really never brought up?). Also worth pointing out is the fact the NBC’s own promos have spoiled plenty of events – sorry Missy Franklin, they just had to run an ad for the Today show in advance of your epic 100 meter backstroke win.

And it isn’t Twitter’s fault that users teamed up against NBC using the #nbcfail hashtag. This is Twitter: it’s like the holy land for consumer complaints and criticisms. Corporate bullying is welcome here.

And it certainly isn’t Twitter’s fault that athlete’s are… well, using the site like users do. In fact, I’d argue this gives those of us on the sidelines a more human look at athletes than ever before. Hope Solo’s tweet-fight with Brandi Chastain probably did more to promote the NBC coverage than the network’s own efforts. Of course, there are consequences – like the horrible, threatening message British diver Tom Daley had to endure. But his reaction was normal; he turned in the abuser and may take a break from Twitter altogether. When you invite the world into your personal space, you unfortunately run such risks.

Perhaps NBC didn’t know what it was getting itself into with Twitter, that its old media strategies would rub new media practices the wrong way. It’s all become so much bigger because Twitter is our water cooler and our echo chamber, so any dissatisfaction is blown to entirely higher degrees – but that’s how Twitter always has and always will work. You can take the startup out of a service, but you can’t take the service out of the startup, and Twitter’s service is built on user content.

So aside from its corporate leanings, for which the company has become more and more known, play on Twitter. The networks still have some catch up work to do, and considering the stark jump in mobile and social usage since Beijing, they had better prepare. Those 2014 Winter Olympics are right around the corner. Time to do your homework, network television.