TECH COLUMN | Mejia: Twitter generates buzz on the news scene

This article has been corrected. You may view this article’s correction here.

Step aside, bloggers: Your days as the go-to reporters of the Internet are numbered. Twitter has shown itself to be a worthy, albeit unlikely, competitor to more traditional blog style news reporting.

The power of blogs and other social news outlets has become ever more remarkable in recent years, particularly during Obama’s campaign and election. It’s become commonplace to hear of bloggers correcting a statement by some politician or providing their own opinions on some event minutes after it occurs. But Twitter has shown promise as a reporting tool. The very first image of the recent plane crash into the Hudson River in New York City was uploaded on Twitter, a full 10 minutes before outlets like The New York Times and others broke the news. Twitter was also the first to break the story of the fire at China’s CCTV complex in Beijing, as well as that of another plane crash in Amsterdam.

Twitter, a free service, is typically described as a “micro-blog” — an abbreviated form of a typical blog, where the users are limited to posts of fewer than 140 characters, under the length of a typical text message. But while the character limit prevents long stories, it allows extremely fast updates. Essentially, the site functions like Facebook’s Mini-Feed — except there are no privacy restrictions.

Whereas blogs require advertisements, Twitter’s format makes it possible for any submission to be seen without any additional effort on the user’s part. Users can update their accounts through a number of methods, including text messages, iPhone applications, desktop clients and by accessing the Web site directly. The service also allows users to follow other users specifically by bringing up an aggregated stream of posts from these selected users.

The most successful characteristic of Twitter seems to be its lack of rules or guidelines about what can be posted. So along with important newsworthy updates, it is not uncommon to see users updating the world on what they ate for dinner or complaining about their day. If there ever was a collective conscious of the Internet, then Twitter seems to be it.

Some complementary services on the site allow a look at trends in topics in users’ posts. Enterprising users have also found ways to use Twitter as a promotional tool. Some companies, like Dell and Comcast6, have used it as a way of reaching out to customers in order to provide updates as well as provide customer service. Barack Obama used Twitter during his campaign to update followers on upcoming events. The Dalai Lama uses it to reach out to followers. Most recently, Emma Watson used it to announce she was accepted to Yale. There are multitudes of celebrities and public figures who have Twitter accounts, mostly personal, where they make their thoughts known.

Twitter’s value lies in its ease of use, speed and ultra-accessibility. All the service requires is a cellphone or access to the Internet, and posts onto the site can be made within seconds. So it’s no surprise that it can go places where regular cameras or reporters can’t. Having seen a massive — and warranted — explosion in popularity, Twitter remains on shaky ground in just one respect: How will it make money?

Chris Mejia is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.

Comments

  • Sam

    I'm not really buying Twitter as news source. Twitter wasn't the first place to get a photo of a plane crash--you can't upload photos to Twitter. Wherever the user uploaded the photo was the first place the photo was posted.

    News isn't 140 characters saying there was a plane crash--it's context, it's information, it's understanding. You can't convey news in 140 characters. The idea that the fact that Twitter gets it "first" ignores the fact that the blogosphere will get it "second" with 100x the details.

    Also, the column completely ignores the issue of how people GET news from Twitter. If one user posts first about some breaking news story, I won't see it. I have to be following them. Twitter as citizen journalism doesn't work--I can only see the tweets of users I choose to follow. What are the chances I choose to follow some stranger who comes across some breaking news story? The depiction of Twitter here is just inaccurate. Honestly the most likely way I'll get news from Twitter…is from mainstream media or blogs--I follow the New York Times and I follow Gawker. That's where I'll get news. But I can use Google Reader for that much more completely.

    The mobile use of Twitter isn't a distinguishing feature either. Blog platforms such as Tumblr allow for full blogging capabilities (INCLUDING PHOTO, VIDEO, SOUND which Twitter can not do) from an iPhone or Blackberry.

    You are correct though that Twitter is interesting as a psychological and cultural phenomenon: "If there ever was a collective conscious of the Internet, then Twitter seems to be it." I agree. The other points about Twitter are wildly contextless and unfounded.

  • Anonymous

    "You can't upload photos to Twitter."

    Technically true, but completely irrelevant. TwitPic (http://www.twitpic.com) serves the sole purpose of letting you upload photos whose URLs are automatically tweeted. It is, for all intents and purposes, a Twitter photo-hosting site.

    As far as the "what are the odds I follow random people" argument: media works by information getting spread beyond its original source. The thinking is that Stranger A reports the plane crash, tags it #breaking (I'm really perplexed as to why hashtags weren't mentioned in Chris' article, given their importance to the phenomena he describes) and gets picked up by Rick Sanchez, who retweets it to his followers, who retweet it to their followers. All you have to do is follow someone more connected than you are, or connected to more people who will be looking for news.