I follow the BBC World, the Guardian and the New York Times through my Twitter account, among other news services, but I get more news and information from the friends I follow on the microblogging service. My friends just happen to read stories from a wide variety of sources and pass along the kind of information they are interested in, and that by extension, I am interested in. In other words, they act as my personal filters for news. And I can safely say that I return the favor for several of my friends as well.
This concept is not exclusive to the new media world. Since the 1940s, media scholars such as Paul Lazarsfeld have spoken about the two-step flow of communication where “opinion leaders” play a huge part in transmitting information from the media to its audience. These mediators help the process by disseminating news in a more concise, intelligible way, but also often infuse their personal agendas and perspectives. Opinion leaders have always existed; who they might be and how you obtain your information from them has changed over time.
At one time they were friends and family who discussed news at the dinner table, later they became radio hosts and television pundits, even late-night comedians. In today’s Web 2.0 world, they include anyone from a Facebook friend to your favorite bloggers and tweeters. Trusted bloggers who write posts multiple times a day often become go-to sources of information (sources), and the most active tweeters may be the microblog’s most influential opinion leaders. This is merely reinforced by the recent Harvard study, which concluded that the upper 10% of tweeters produced a third of Twitter content.
Fine, so it’s great for information getters. But what’s in it for the information gatherers? Almost every journalist now seems to have a Twitter account with an ever-exploding number of followers. Other than the obvious reasons of getting the word out about their latest news stories, journalists also gain information
from the Twittersphere, in the form of sources, story ideas and well, straight news. Little wonder then that the young social media tool is being used in a variety of ways to do better journalism — from gathering a group of experts on a topic to reporting breaking news events. And in an age where everyone from politicians to CEOs is busy tweeting, the service brings newsmakers closer to readers and journalists, thus cutting out cagey PR professionals.
A journalist cannot and does not know everything, and chances are, he’ll know more about what’s in the news, but less about the most popular topic being discussed by regular people in the real world. Enter Twitter.
Almost a decade ago, Dan Gillmor said this about reporting on technology while inhabiting a Silicon Valley overflowing with techies:
“In most gatherings, I’m taking up the far-left data point on the intelligence bell curve. Of course, being the least knowledgeable person in the room has its advantages; I always learn something.
That’s one reason why my blog has been so helpful. It’s sparked deeper conversations with my sources and my readers, who are always telling me things I don’t know. This is interactive journalism.”
If the computer professionals at Silicon Valley helped Gillmor with esoteric information about the world of technology, imagine just how much more information he could get out of 14o-character tweets from his computer-savvy readers.
And that simplicity is in itself the benefit of Twitter. It takes a lot of effort to sit down and write a blog post on a subject, or even a response to a thought-provoking post. But a 140-character message expressing an occurrence, and one’s thoughts on the occurrence with the utmost brevity can aid journalists to explore and write about it. Not surprisingly, Gillmor sees various benefits in Twitter, be it following the latest trends among readers or getting more information from those who have it.
It isn’t always informative. “….not all tweets are equally useful,” writes Paul Farhi in the American Journalism Review this month while exploring Twitter as a journalism tool. “Tweets from reporters covering the heavily choreographed political conventions last summer produced plenty of snark and trivia, but little in the way of important or interesting news.”
But the good news is that all tweets don’t have to be useful. The trivia and the snarks are what bring your audience in, and then you surreptitiously slip in a story about the Darfur crisis. I’m half joking, of course, but much like the blogosphere before it, the Twittersphere gains from these personal angles and intimate updates.
For instance, The Washington Post uses Twitter to update you on every significant story it ever publishes, but Chris Cillizza posts specific tweets that have to do with politics, media, and technology (and throws in one about his newly-painted door for good measure). And then there are funny ones: “Tourists in Washington do a lot of running for some reason. What’s the hurry?”
Personal tweets are akin to the personal angles in stories or blogs – ones that bring the journalist closer to the individual. Josh Marshall, perhaps the best-known journalist-turned-blogger in the US, posts pictures of his son on TPM Muckraker. That doesn’t take away from his site’s breaking of the story about the firing of eight US attorneys in early 2007. But his audience knows more about him.
Hence the term “social” media, hello! It’s the way new media works, that’s why blog posts can sometimes be more popular than straight news stories, and why tweets can bring more breaking news in real time to more people.
It’s still serious business. From reporting the discovery of water ice on Mars, to transmitting life-saving information during terror attacks to covering courtroom trials, Twitter has come a long way.
When it takes a US President to request a company to put off scheduled maintenance so an anti-government protest in a country worlds away can go on, you know it’s serious business.
Talking of which, of course, there are pitfalls. The blog and Twitter following of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Iran’s presidential challenger (who, to the Western world is clearly an improvement over Ahmedinejad) grew within hours of the citizen uprising. As Middle East experts know and later reported, Mousavi isn’t exactly the ideal leader, considering his past actions as a former prime minister. It took days for the mainstream media to start addressing that fact – and by that time, the Twitter world was already “green,” expressing support for Moussavi, a following promoted by no less than the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan.
The mistakes and errors in judgment made by a newspaper can be retracted, those made by a news Web site or a blog can be partially retracted, given the fact that they have perhaps already traveled horizontally through the Web via hyperlinks; when they happen on the Twittersphere, a medium that conveys information through 140 characters, the cat is that much harder to put back in the bag, as Washington Post reporter Ron Charles recently found.
Errors are amplified in this media environment because most Twitter followers and bloggers aren’t so much validating and confirming their facts as they are reinforcing an opinion or statement they already agree with. But while the social media sphere is a business of corroboration for regular people, it should not remain so for journalists.
The advantage of Twitter is that it is the simplest source for breaking news stories. The disadvantage of Twitter is that it is the simplest source for breaking news stories. Getting back to the Iran coverage, while mainstream news organizations were waiting for their international correspondents to get back with deep, in-depth analysis, Twitter was already overflowing with content, some of it not necessarily erroneous, but certainly wanting in context and depth, and very decidedly green.
As Steven Johnson aptly summarizes in Time:
“Increasingly, the stories that come across our radar — news about a plane crash, a feisty Op-Ed, a gossip item — will arrive via the passed links of the people we follow. Instead of being built by some kind of artificially intelligent software algorithm, a customized newspaper will be compiled from all the articles being read that morning by your social network. This will lead to more news diversity and polarization at the same time: your networked front page will be more eclectic than any traditional-newspaper front page, but political partisans looking to enhance their own private echo chamber will be able to tune out opposing viewpoints more easily.”