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Twitter’s social networking strengths are a boon for journalists

December 9th, 2009 Posted in Arts and Life

By Dan Fawson

LOGAN–Immediately following Brigham Young University football quarterback Max Hall’s now infamous post-game press conference after the Nov. 28 win over archrival University of Utah, in which Hall expressed his hate for, and deemed classless, everyone associated in any way, shape, or form with the Utes, Salt Lake Tribune sportswriter Lya Wodraska took to the Web. But rather than writing up a short article or making a quick post on her Tribune blog, Wodraska tweeted.

“Max Hall just gave the most classless interview for a winning QB I’ve ever heard in 17 years of sports writing, you’ll be hearing it soon,” read Wodraska’s tweet, sent at precisely 7:05 p.m., mere minutes after Hall’s verbal ambush.

When Iranian protests began in June after that nation’s controversial presidential election, the government sought to quell the movement by censoring media coverage and restricting access to pro-protest Web sites and text messaging. In response to the government’s censorship, enraged protestors communicated protest efforts and provided worldwide media coverage of the uprising via an unexpected social media tool – Twitter.

The tweeting proved so effective that a scheduled June 15 network update of the Twitter Web site was delayed at the request of U.S. State Department officials hoping to protect the interests of the Iranian protestors.

Tweet, tweet? >>
According to its Web site, http://twitter.com/, Twitter arose from the simple desire of one of its founders, Jack Dorsey, to know what his friends were doing. “Jack wondered if there might be an opportunity to build something compelling around this simple status concept,” the Web site reads. After collaborating with Evan Williams and Biz Stone, the trio officially launched Twitter in August 2006.

The results speak for themselves. After initially generating attention as a way for users to get day-to-day updates from friends and favorite celebrities, albeit trivial updates at times–actor Ashton Kutcher once updated fans on his trip to the grocery store to pickup “fixins for a salad”–Twitter has seen its popularity skyrocket as of late. As of Dec. 7, over 6.4 billion total tweets have been sent, with the number expected to exceed 10 billion in late March 2010. And more importantly, at least for newsmakers and news consumers, Twitter is now emerging as a viable force in both media coverage and media consumption.

“While most Twitter users stick to the standard ‘What Are You Doing?’ fare,” wrote Peter Cashmore in a weekly blog for CNN.com, “a growing number spend much of their time collating links and pointing their followers to relevant, timely, topic-based information.”

Such media friendliness, specifically in the form of Twitter “lists,” which are designed to allow users to filter lists in order to receive topic-specific information, has made an impression on journalists like Cashmore and Jay Rosen, who are seeking to simplify the information onslaught coming from today’s online media.

Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and a renowned Twitter enthusiast, predicted the impact lists would have on Twitter well before their early November debut.

Lists will change Twitter >>
As one of the privileged few allowed to view Twitter lists prior to their going public, Rosen wrote in early October, via tweet, of course, “You’ll find out yourself soon enough, but I’m telling you now. “Lists” are going to change Twitter.” Others have begun echoing Rosen’s prediction, going into slightly more detail.

“From lists of sports stars to comedians to political pundits, Twitter has provided its members with the tools required to splice a torrent of updates into a series of relevant, topic-based streams,” Cashmore writes. “In doing so, the social networking startup may have hit upon the long-overdue cure to information overload and birthed a new breed of editor: the real-time Web curator.”

Twitter’s simplicity, namely its 140 characters per tweet maximum, has helped to grow and shape its image as a fast-paced news provider, Iran being a primary example. Because it runs on two networks, the Internet and SMS–the network used by cell phones for text-messaging–Twitter also enables users to post and receive news faster than most other mediums.

“There’s the 140 characters, and that’s it,” said Tyler Riggs, host of KVNU’s “For the People” and administrator for the online news site Cache Valley Daily, “so it becomes very convenient for distributing information quickly, be it an update to a news story, a brief “happening” or a link to something online.”

Riggs said Twitter also enables CVDaily to provide readers with instant breaking news and story updates.

“We are constantly using Twitter,” Riggs said. “I have a setup where a tweet with a link is published whenever something new is posted on (the Web site), and I also have the three podcasts I run for KVNU radio automated on Twitter also.”

Constant news updates like the ones given by Riggs are common among other news outlets, serving to benefit all news consuming tweeters.

“People and news outlets start tweeting information immediately,” Riggs explains, “and I, sitting here in Logan, Utah, can see the most up-to-date information second by second, and can pass that information along to my listeners, readers, and users.”

As the journalism field seeks to adapt to an increasingly online world, Cashmore believes journalists can benefit financially from the instant updates and link-sharing capabilities provided by Twitter. “Journalists, it would seem, are well-placed to capitalize on the trend,” Cashmore wrote, “since directing an audience’s attention via links is not materially different to editing a newspaper or magazine.”

Journalism’s white knight? >>
A constantly expanding user population, quick and easy news access, and a possible long-term shot in the arm for journalism: Too good to be true? Answer unknown.

Praise, love, and adoration aside, the fact remains, Twitter, albeit initially successful, is still a social networking tool. Needless to say, said classification hasn’t always carried with it a “usually-stands-the-test-of-time” standard.

“Three years ago we all thought MySpace was pretty hot and the wave of the future, and ten years ago we were all hanging out in AOL chat rooms,” Riggs said.

If it wants to avoid the fate of many of its social networking predecessors, Riggs believes Twitter will have to carry a Facebook-like appeal, something it is still working towards. In order to do so, Twitter will need to continually find new ways to serve its users, much like it did with Twitter Lists.

“While it has a lot of buzz in the media and celebrity circles, and certainly is growing,” Riggs said, “if you go into a general education class at USU and ask everyone to raise their hand if they’re on Twitter, you might get two or three students in a class of 100 raising their hand.”

“I would venture to guess that Facebook has more staying power (than Twitter), at this point, because of the level it has been ingrained in the lives of many people and its adaptability,” Riggs said. “Twitter is going to have to innovate and stay fresh if it wants to succeed.”


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