Journalism in 140 characters or less?
Excerpted on More Intelligent Life
Over the past six months, as Twitter has evolved from obscure internet phenomenon to overhyped global trend, it has polarized opinion, inspired contempt, and ultimately, failed to resolve the question that’s never far from everyone’s mind.
What exactly is it good for?
Responses range from the serious (issuing updates about a natural disaster) to the less-than-serious (tracking the behavior of a family cat). Perhaps because both are equally valid, the service has become the subject of intense curiosity, and over the past few weeks, stories have been published about uses as diverse as students Twittering to avoid arrest in Egypt, governors using it to fight tax hikes, and most curiously, unborn babies broadcasting their own fetal activity.
But inventive applications aside, one of the most commonly accepted answers is this: with traditional journalism declining and Huffington Post-style reportage stepping up to give it a hand, Twitter may soon become a critical supplement to newsrooms unable to staff foreign bureaus or break stories on a 24-hour cycle. After a series of major news events made it to Twitter before CNN, the media found itself forced to take the service seriously, and over the past few months, more and more journalists have begun to form what Gawker has dubbed the Twitterati.
All of which raises another question – is Twitter actually useful for journalism?
With its news-feed design and emphasis on pithiness (all tweets must be 140 characters or less) Twitter occupies a booming niche in the world of online media. Behind Facebook, it is the fastest growing networking service in the world, recording a staggering 1,382% growth in 2008, and claiming over 7 million unique visitors in February alone. Its success is attributable to its idiosyncratic platform – as a cross between social networking and ‘micro-blogging’, Twitter straddles the border of text message and RSS feed, combining the intimacy of a conversation with the eerie total recall of the internet. In posting tweets, each user becomes an individual AP wire, a public diarist whose thoughts are, for better or worse, instantly treated as news.
Although Twitter will turn three this May, it stayed more or less within the tech community until last fall, when citizens in Mumbai used it to report on the terrorist attacks spreading throughout the city. For news organizations, this was a decisive moment – Mumbai not only signaled that social networks could no longer be ignored, but also that people were willing to trust them as a primary source of information. This month, Twitter made headlines again when protesters in Moldova used the service to orchestrate opposition to a recent Communist party victory. Under a thread named “#pman” – an abbreviation of “Piata Marii Adunari Nationale”, the largest public square in Moldova’s capital – protestors organized gatherings, one of which culminated in a 15,000 person riot.
As a medium for news, Twitter’s benefits are obvious: it outpaces newspapers by sending short real-time updates through email and SMS. Beyond this, news often comes directly from the source – several of the Mumbai tweets originated in hotels and basements near the attacks – and it can aggregate content quickly, creating archives and highlighting trends within an remarkably short span of time. However, with speed and compactness as its most newsworthy qualities, Twitter only lets users tell part of the story, requiring readers – to the delight of marketing departments – to go elsewhere for real coverage. Moreover, with its focus on the most recent, real news is often buried under a barrage of information. In many ways, Twitter represents a twist on a classic journalistic dictum: this minute’s news is the next minute’s forgotten URL.
When taken as a crowd phenomenon, however, Twitter becomes more relevant. Unlike Facebook or Myspace, which are organized around carefully groomed online personas, Twitter is truly group-based, allowing users to create personal salons in which private conversations are pooled into a single, digestible news stream. This is a good way to disrupt the myopia of one’s own internet habits, and also it’s probably the only way 460,000 people would ever be privy to the personal musings of John McCain (or Slavoj Zizek, for that matter). If you’re selective about who you follow, trends often emerge, and checking a feed begins to resemble eavesdropping at an unusually entertaining party.
Writing in Slate, tech columnist Farhad Manjoo observed that Twitter is “not—or, at least, not yet—a necessary way to stay socially relevant in the information age.” He’s right. Unlike Facebook, which has become a 21st century necessity, Twitter is less about defining identity than it is about managing the creation of communities and the flow of information. Like the production of news, the ability to decide what is newsworthy is fast becoming a bottom-up process, meaning that users can influence content by directly shaping trends. Instead of readers following headlines, it’s now journalists that find themselves chasing memes in search of a story. Additionally, with the proliferation of sites like TweetBrain, Twitter is now an indispensable means of crowdsourcing – a mode of engaging the public to respond to specific questions or tasks, such as designing a health care policy or writing a Wikipedia entry.
In general, Twitter’s genius is less in its content than in its organization. While it’s occasionally good for breaking stories – the January plane crash in the Hudson being another notable example – it’s primarily a rhizomatic database, an archive in which users transcend profession or geography. Through organizing itself around keywords, Twitter collapses distinctions between reader and writer, specialist and novice, and makes it equally easy to access niche communities or an undifferentiated public.
As new information technologies redefine expectations and communities, journalism must evolve to balance the wisdom of the individual with the input of the crowd.