Here's some news that will surprise absolutely no one who's been paying attention: A&E ended Phil Robertson's suspension from Duck Dynasty quickly because it realized that a metric ton of Twitter outrage wouldn't affect the show's bottom line one bit.
According to a piece in yesterday's New York Times by Andrew Ross Sorkin on the blessings and curses of relying on "Big Data," the network freaked out and pulled Robertson off the air when it feared a growing backlash to homophobic comments he'd made in a GQ interview. A&E execs figured the outrage it was hearing online would translate into the loss of eyeballs and advertising, so it knee-jerked.
However, once the network took a step back and started actually analyzing the social media data it came to a predictable conclusion: the people complaining about Duck Dynasty online weren't the ones watching the show anyway.
Many of the negative tweets weren’t coming from the show’s core audience in the middle of the country. Instead, they were coming from the tweet-happy East and West Coasts — not exactly regular watchers of the camo-wearing Louisiana clan whose members openly celebrate being “rednecks.” About a week later, after A&E analyzed the feedback with some more perspective, the network reversed course on Robertson’s “indefinite hiatus,” reinstating him before he even missed a day of taping.
What this points out is the biggest pitfall of life inside the social media echo chamber. The problem is that when the outrage machine is cranked to 11, it's almost impossible to discern volume from size. Just because something is loud doesn't mean it's big -- or that it's concentrated in an area that will actually have an impact -- and so reacting reflexively is generally a terrible idea.
It seemed obvious from the beginning that all the indignation over Phil Robertson's ass-backward comments wouldn't have much of an effect on a show which aimed for a crowd that probably agreed with him. A bunch of angry liberals on Twitter aren't going to shame a guy like Phil Robertson or those who watch him.
Of course one thing didn't wind up working out in A&E's favor: The rush of pro-Phil culture warriors from the right that the network expected to bolster Duck Dynasty's ratings in the new season never materialized -- and the numbers dropped substantially. Chances are A&E once again misread the media tea leaves, since the people who spoke up in support of Robertson were probably already viewers of the show.