‘ve lost count of the times people – including a surprising number of colleagues in media companies – roll their eyes at the mention of Twitter. “No time for it,” they say. “Inane stuff about what twits are having for breakfast. Nothing to do with the news business.”
Well, yes and no. Inanity – yes, sure, plenty of it. But saying that Twitter has got nothing to do with the news business is about as misguided as you could be.
Here, off the top of my head, are 15 things, which Twitter does rather effectively and which should be of the deepest interest to anyone involved in the media at any level.
1) It’s an amazing form of distribution
It’s a highly effective way of spreading ideas, information and content. Don’t be distracted by the 140-character limit. A lot of the best tweets are links. It’s instantaneous. Its reach can be immensely far and wide.
Why does this matter? Because we do distribution too. We’re now competing with a medium that can do many things incomparably faster than we can. It’s back to the battle between scribes and movable type. That matters in journalistic terms. And, if you’re trying to charge for content, it matters in business terms. The life expectancy of much exclusive information can now be measured in minutes, if not in seconds. That has profound implications for our economic model, never mind the journalism.
2) It’s where things happen first
Not all things. News organisations still break lots of news. But, increasingly, news happens first on Twitter. If you’re a regular Twitter user, even if you’re in the news business and have access to wires, the chances are that you’ll check out many rumours of breaking news on Twitter first. There are millions of human monitors out there who will pick up on the smallest things and who have the same instincts as the agencies — to be the first with the news. As more people join, the better it will get.
3) As a search engine, it rivals Google
Many people still don’t quite understand that Twitter is, in some respects, better than Google in finding stuff out. Google is limited to using algorithms to ferret out information in the unlikeliest hidden corners of the web. Twitter goes one stage further – harnessing the mass capabilities of human intelligence to the power of millions in order to find information that is new, valuable, relevant or entertaining.
4) It’s a formidable aggregation tool
You set Twitter to search out information on any subject you want and it will often bring you the best information there is. It becomes your personalised news feed. If you are following the most interesting people they will in all likelihood bring you the most interesting information. In other words, it’s not simply you searching. You can sit back and let other people you admire or respect go out searching and gathering for you. Again, no news organisation could possibly aim to match, or beat, the combined power of all those worker bees collecting information and disseminating it.
5) It’s a great reporting tool
Many of the best reporters are now habitually using Twitter as an aid to find information. This can be simple requests for knowledge which other people already know, have to hand, or can easily find. The so-called wisdom of crowds comes into play: the ‘they know more than we do’ theory. Or you’re simply in a hurry and know that someone out there will know the answer quickly. Or it can be reporters using Twitter to find witnesses to specific events – people who were in the right place at the right time, but would otherwise be hard to find.
6) It’s a fantastic form of marketing
You’ve written your piece or blog. You may well have involved others in the researching of it. Now you can let them all know it’s there, so that they come to your site. You alert your community of followers. In marketing speak, it drives traffic and it drives engagement. If they like what they read they’ll tell others about it. If they really like it, it will, as they say, ‘go viral’. I only have 18,500 followers. But if I get re-tweeted by one of our columnists, Charlie Brooker, I instantly reach a further 200,000. If Guardian Technology pick it up it goes to an audience of 1.6m. If Stephen Fry notices it, it’s global.
7) It’s a series of common conversations. Or it can be
As well as reading what you’ve written and spreading the word, people can respond. They can agree or disagree or denounce it. They can blog elsewhere and link to it. There’s nothing worse than writing or broadcasting something to no reaction at all. With Twitter you get an instant reaction. It’s not transmission, it’s communication. It’s the ability to share and discuss with scores, or hundreds, or thousands of people in real time. Twitter can be fragmented. It can be the opposite of fragmentation. It’s a parallel universe of common conversations.
8) It’s more diverse
Traditional media allowed a few voices in. Twitter allows anyone.
9) It changes the tone of writing
A good conversation involves listening as well as talking. You will want to listen as well as talk. You will want to engage and be entertaining. There is, obviously, more brevity on Twitter. There’s more humour. More mixing of comment with fact. It’s more personal. The elevated platform on which journalists sometimes liked to think they were sitting is kicked away on Twitter. Journalists are fast learners. They start writing differently.
Talking of which…
10) It’s a level playing field
A recognised “name” may initially attract followers in reasonable numbers. But if they have nothing interesting to say they will talk into an empty room. The energy in Twitter gathers around people who can say things crisply and entertainingly, even though they may be “unknown.” They may speak to a small audience, but if they say interesting things they may well be republished numerous times and the exponential pace of those re-transmissions can, in time, dwarf the audience of the so-called big names. Shock news: sometimes the people formerly known as readers can write snappier headlines and copy than we can.
11) It has different news values
People on Twitter quite often have an entirely different sense of what is and what isn’t news. What seems obvious to journalists in terms of the choices we make is quite often markedly different from how others see it – both in terms of the things we choose to cover and the things we ignore. The power of tens of thousands of people articulating those different choices can wash back into newsrooms and affect what editors choose to cover. We can ignore that, of course. But should we?
12) It has a long attention span
The opposite is usually argued – that Twitter is simply a, instant, highly condensed stream of consciousness. The perfect medium for goldfish. But set your Tweetdeck to follow a particular keyword or issue or subject and you may well find that the attention span of Twitterers puts newspapers to shame. They will be ferreting out and aggregating information on the issues that concern them long after the caravan of professional journalists has moved on.
13) It creates communities
Or, rather communities form themselves around particular issues, people, events, artifacts, cultures, ideas, subjects or geographies. They may be temporary communities, or long-terms ones, strong ones or weak ones. But I think they are recognisably communities.
14) It changes notions of authority
Instead of waiting to receive the ‘expert’ opinions of others – mostly us, journalists — Twitter shifts the balance to so-called ‘peer to peer’ authority. It’s not that Twitterers ignore what we say – on the contrary (see distribution and marketing, above) they are becoming our most effective transmitters and responders. But, equally, we kid ourselves if we think there isn’t another force in play here – that a 21-year-old student is quite likely to be more drawn to the opinions and preferences of people who look and talk like her. Or a 31-year-old mother of young toddlers. Or a 41-year-old bloke passionate about politics and the rock music of his youth.
15) It is an agent of change
As this ability of people to combine around issues and to articulate them grows, so it will have increasing effect on people in authority. Companies are already learning to respect, even fear, the power of collaborative media. Increasingly, social media will challenge conventional politics and, for instance, the laws relating to expression and speech.
Now you could write a further list of things that are irritating about the way people use Twitter. It’s not good at complexity – though it can link to complexity. It can be frustratingly reductive. It doesn’t do what investigative reporters or war correspondents do. It doesn’t, of itself, verify facts. It can be distracting, indiscriminate and overwhelming.
Moreover, I’m simply using Twitter as one example of the power of open, or social media. Twitter may go the way of other, now forgotten, flashes in the digital pan. The downside of Twitter also means that the full weight of the world’s attention can fall on a single unstable piece of information. But we can be sure that the motivating idea behind these forms of open media isn’t going away and that, if we are blind to their capabilities, we will be making a very serious mistake, both in terms of our journalism and the economics of our business.