Twitter vs. the New York Times: Who wins?

Megabucks libertarian Peter Thiel touts the social media network. But don't count newspapers out

By Andrew Leonard

Published May 1, 2013 4:39PM (EDT)

Peter Thiel    (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Peter Thiel (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

A CNN headline Tuesday morning: "Peter Thiel: Twitter will outlast the New York Times." Peter Thiel co-founded PayPal, was an early crucial investor in Facebook and is not only a very rich man, but a pretty smart guy. Presumably, therefore, we should pay attention to what he says.

What he actually said, in a debate with Mark Andreessen at the Milken Institute Global Conference, according to CNN, was that "Twitter's roughly 1,000 employees will have jobs a decade from now," because "the business case for Twitter is solid," while employees of the New York Times "should be worried about the longevity of their jobs" because the newspaper "is not guaranteed a future in the digital age."

Please. No one is guaranteed a future in the digital age. But if I had to pick one paper that had the best chance of surviving and thriving, I'd probably choose the New York Times, a newspaper that continues to provide indispensable, in-depth reporting on topics of great social importance. And if I had to pick one social media network that was most likely to survive, I'd pick ... well, who the hell knows? Social media networks, so far, have the lifespan of butterflies. They look nice for a few minutes, and then they're gone. Poof! Friendster, MySpace, et cetera.

Facebook and Twitter may appear to have more staying power than their predecessors, but making any prediction about where a company that didn't exist 10 years ago will be 10 years from now is mighty risky. Just for starters: If Twitter starts filling up my feed with ads to the point that I start feeling the benefits are getting outweighed by the hassle -- a point that Facebook's mobile app reached for me this morning -- then Twitter's "solid" business case will melt away.

Relatedly, one of the things that people do on Twitter is share links to news items. This implies that there will always be an appetite for news, which will require things that function like, uh, newspapers. The New York Times is well positioned to fill this need! Indeed, the human desire for newspapers goes back quite a long way -- at least 2,000 years! The human desire to express oneself in 140 characters or less? Well, the evidence supporting that goes back to, basically, yesterday.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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New York Times Peter Thiel Social Media Twitter