PALO ALTO, Calif. — According to Twitter, there were 31 million tweets on Election Day, with the site hitting a peak of 327,452 tweets-per-minute the moment TV networks called the race for President Obama. That was a record pace for the micro-blogging network, and the company considers it a point of pride that Twitter never once went down during the surge. As Twitter design chief Doug Bowman noted, “RIP, Fail Whale.”
Yet if you wanted to keep close tabs on who was winning Tuesday night, Twitter failed you. The same goes for much of the rest of the Web. The best way to figure out what was going on was to go old-school: Turn on the news, sit back, and relax.
TV’s best election geeks — especially CNN’s John King and NBC’s Chuck Todd — were faster, more accurate and more thoughtful than most sources you could find online. Throughout the night, they told you where Obama was doing well, where Mitt Romney was weak, what was going on with congressional races, and why specific returns in specific swing counties across the nation mattered. With King’s “Magic Wall” — the data-spewing touchscreen map that he operated with the facility of a tweaked-out gamer — and with its live, exclusive reports on the vote count from important polling places in battleground states, CNN became something like a televised version of polling maestro Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times. If you were watching TV without the aid of the Web, you would have known pretty early Tuesday night that Romney was in trouble, and you would have known exactly why.
But if TV offered everything I usually go to the Web for — speed, precision and depth — the Web was full of what one usually finds on cable news: pointless bloviating peppered with unsubstantiated rumor. At its best, Twitter was a noisy echo of television — most people were just telling you what they were watching and how they felt about it. Sites offering live election results were slammed with traffic, which made them slow and unreliable. The scrolling tickers on cable networks offered up results faster than you could find them on most states’ official election pages.
TV’s triumph over Twitter was surprising. For the rest of the campaign, Twitter was the center of the political universe. Reporters, pundits and activists used the network to monitor and manufacture each day’s spin. Twitter’s zenith came during the three presidential debates. Even while Obama and Romney were speaking, its clever, politically minded hordes would fact-check and grade their performances in real time. On TV after the debates, you’d mostly hear pundits telling you stuff they’d read on Twitter. This was old media at its worst.
Twitter also revealed its strengths during Hurricane Sandy, directing people to information that was targeted to their needs.
Unlike the storm or the debates, election night — a long-planned-for event that benefits from a lot of expensive resources — played to TV’s strengths. The networks knew where to deploy their people, and they had specific expertise on staff. Any citizen can report from a storm, and anyone who was watching that first debate could have opined on Obama’s terrible performance, but it takes an election expert to tell you why Hillsborough County, Fla., is crucial to the electoral math, and it takes money and access to send a reporter to monitor the vote tally in that county and report what they’re seeing right now.
The good thing is that you don’t have to choose between Twitter and TV. Everyone who was following Twitter Tuesday night was also watching the tube, and that was true of the debates, too. Like peanut butter and jelly, the two are better together.