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    Twitter Helps with Reporting, Filtering the News

    by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo
    May 9, 2008

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    Last May on MediaShift, we wrote a series of articles about a new microblogging tool called Twitter, which was just beginning to gain visibility among the digerati. At that time, many bloggers were still on the fence as to how useful the service really was. Many thought it was a waste of time. Others just didn’t understand if it really had any practical uses in daily life.

    In my post, I wrote about the potential uses for Twitter in the future, such as helping out in emergency situations or facilitating co-working for remote teams. One year later, I’ve found that Twitter has gone above and beyond my original expectations in terms of usefulness, allowing me to obtain and share information efficiently. But Twitter has also proven to be a tool that should be used with caution lest it become the opposite of useful: a time suck.

    Last year, I was skeptical about Twitter becoming more than just something I used for fun, or perhaps to meet a few colleagues. But after I wrote the first story, quite a few people began to “follow” me (Twitter-speak for adding people as contacts). I have been adding everyone who added me, and to this day I only know 8 of my 867 “friends” in real life. As my circle of Twitter friends began to grow the service became more useful for me, because I could learn more about what friends were doing or reading, and I could share the same with them.

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    Perhaps the most surprising and important use I’ve found is for reporting. When I write stories here on MediaShift, I almost always turn to Twitter to cull opinions and find interviewees among my group of contacts. With reporting, the more friends you have the better, because if you put out a question to 800 people someone’s bound to have an answer; and if they don’t, they usually know someone who does.

    I’ve found Twitter to be much more useful than Facebook’s “Questions” application, specifically built for putting out queries to your social network. More people seem to respond to “tweets” than to questions. In fact, while reporting on a story about Facebook, I found more interesting responses to my questions on Twitter than on Facebook itself. Other writers and bloggers have also found Twitter to be a powerful reporting tool as well.

    More Useful Than RSS?

    If I had the time to sit around and read Twitter updates all day long, I think I might find that they are more useful than the ridiculous number of RSS feeds I subscribe to for keeping up with news. When sifting through news every morning, my impartial feed reader provides no indication of what’s important and what isn’t. But on Twitter, if it’s hot news you’ll hear about it first. As humans are the best editors, it’s almost like a filter for what I need to know now.

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    Watching Twitter users on the East Coast react as the news of the Spitzer scandal= got out was like being able to watch a rumor zip through a village. And like in whispered private conversations heard in a cafe or bar, you’re likely to find out about things you’d never hear about otherwise. If many people are talking about the same thing, you’ll quickly find out why.

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    Breaking News Headlines on Twitter

    Plus, there’s the network effect of Twitter, helping connect me to more knowledgeable people and more diverse sources of information. When I see an interesting tweet from one of my contacts to one of theirs, I often click (via the @username formula) to see who my contact is talking to. More often than not, it’s someone with similar interests who has a blog about topics I’m interested in.

    And then there’s the social usefulness. Twitter seems to have been created to help people who already know each other to stay up to date on what everyone else is doing. For me Twitter is proving useful for making contacts and friends I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I’ve caught up with old co-workers from a past job, followed contacts in San Francisco and Europe with whom I’ve met up with in person, and been invited to events and to participate in interesting projects thanks to my Twitter circle of friends.

    Twitter’s Greatest Hits of Usefulness

    One year later, Twitter has lived up to some expectations around its usefulness and even outdone some others. For instance, when many bloggers speculated that Twitter might be employed for use in emergency situations, we couldn’t have known how it would play out in real life one just months later. Twitter users in Southern California during the wildfires used the tool to do local reporting for the benefit of neighbors. Even for people who were evacuated and didn’t have a computer, they could follow the updates on their cell phones. Twitter users were also able to broadcast live updates on the Minnesota bridge collapse just minutes after it happened and before many news outlets could get the details out to the public.

    The Iowa Caucuses were also covered by citizen journalists via Twitter, filling in the gaps left by local and national coverage. It also proved to be a good way to keep up with the results on Super Tuesday. We’ve also seen mainstream media embrace Twitter and other new media tools for reporting on important, time-sensitive stories.

    More recently, Twitter was at least partially responsible for the release of a young journalist jailed in Egypt, who used his cell phone to send a one word cry for help: “Arrested.”

    The Twitter Time Suck

    But in all its usefulness, Twitter still does live up to some of the initial takes people had one year ago. It’s still pretty useless if you don’t have friends on the service. And if you have too many contacts, it’s most definitely a time suck for those who don’t have the discipline to stay away from it. In speaking to a friend last week about his Twittering boss, he told me “I just don’t have time to Twitter. I have to work.” Indeed, in signing on to Twitter and seeing some of the most well-known names in technology shooting off an inane missive every 30 seconds, one has to wonder: Does anybody work around here?

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    More Friends, More Distraction

    Last year, in a post here on MediaShift about social media and privacy, I wondered if an added disadvantage to the service might be the fact that anyone who takes you seriously, such as a boss, might be put off by the fact that you are online all day updating people on the minutiae of your life. I still think this could be a problem, as could all of your other activity at all the various social networking sites.

    Speaking of wasting time, a lot of time is wasted — both suffering from and talking about — Twitter’s frequent outages. A big geek event like MacWorld can take Twitter offline from conversation overdose, causing a few users to call for a decentralization of the service.

    And then there’s the amount of useless conversation hurled at you. On the flip side of Twitter acting as a filter for important news, if you pay too much attention to it and attempt to follow every conversation, you’re are bound to get lost. At first I followed the path that other bloggers were saying was best for getting the most out of Twitter, and reciprocated every follow I received. For a while this was working quite well. Most of the people I was following were updating less than 10 times a day, so the conversation was easy to keep up with.

    At about 100 followers/followees, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed as it began to get chaotic and I was losing track of the conversations from people I was more interested in. Now I am tempted to not follow anyone else, or be a bit more selective about whom I add, since the more conversations I follow, the more tempted I am to waste more time on the site.

    Last month, blogger and cartoonist Hugh McLeod made the decision to drop out of Twitter, leaving many in the blogosphere surprised and the story was widely circulated. But McLeod’s reasoning was that it was apparently distracting him from his real work, and he needed to delete his account to avoid wasting time.

    I can relate to his reasons why, but I can also see why he came back only a couple of weeks later. It’s addictive because it’s fun, and while it may not save the world, it can be useful, especially for those of us who rely on fresh information for our jobs. In the end, like other technological obsessions, it all comes down to discipline and getting the technology to work for you, not against you.

    What do you think? One year later, has Twitter changed your life or invaded it? Do you think Twitter is useful or has your interest in it petered out? What do you use Twitter for or why don’t you use it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

    Tagged: cellphones journalism microblogging twitter weblog
    • I have only started using Twitter in the past two weeks because, I have to admit, it seemed pretty mental. Additionally, I have only a couple of friends who are as geeky as I am so I didn’t really think I would have anyone to follow or anyone to follow me.

      Was at a blogger dinner last night and, of course, the subject of Twitter came up. One guy (with 1000+ followers) claimed it had “changed his life” and made staying in touch and general communication easier. Another person was a very infrequent tweeter because she said she felt the pressure to “always say something profound.”

      I am still in that middle area. I am open to reaping the benefits from it and am willing to see what they might be. The story (true or not) about the kid who got sprung from the Egyptian jail because of his tweet is interesting. Its use for news gathering and reporting is intriguing as well.

      Hey, if you want to follow me and see if I’m any good at this whole Twitter thing, I am mchamberlin. I make no promises about my entertainment value, however…

    • With over 4,500 followers @BreakingNewsOn is one of the best news services on Twitter. By tweeting short bits of information they are able to get basic information to online users faster than many major news organizations.

    • Kim

      I’ve started using Twitter in the last couple of weeks, too, both for work and for pleasure. On the one hand, I can form very low-pressure relationships with fans of my work (unlike IM, there’s no senseless chit-chat, and no social obligation to send more than a quick sentence or two, or none at all). On the other hand, I’ve found it great fun to keep in touch with far-off friends in a way more meaningful than stalking their Facebook status, and again less time-consuming and obligation-riddled than IM or email. Especially with close friends, with whom I already share great familiarity, seeing brief glimpses into their day makes me feel closer to them than a monthly email.

      I know I’m new to Twitter, and I might well get overwhelmed by it down the line, but for now I’m infatuated with it, completely. (Especially when used via Twitterfox.)

    • Thanks for an interesting article. As a matter of sheer coincidence, my tweet this morning was “How can anyone follow more than 10 or 15 people on the Twitter and still have a life? Just ignore what you missed?”

      It’s nice to see others are equally vexed by the dual powers of Twitter.

    • I mainly only follow people I actually know. It’s still under 20 people. I use tweetscan to follow a few topics that I’m interested in via rss. I’ve subscribed to them all in my main page on Netvibes, so I don’t miss anything important. :D

    • I love the motto “Don’t let the robots win,” and “Computers should work for people. People should not work for computers.” This helps me make the most of “new” innovations like TWITTER and new applications that work with TWITTER. Using a new system, I can twitter by cell phone without typing! Another related phone based system is RIBBIT, which lets me works with SALESFORCE by voice. I’m new at twittering, but I think it has a lot of promise, especially since I can twitter so effortlessly while on the road just by talking into my cell. You can follow me if you like and see how it works. — pguild

    • Very interesting post. I always try to explain Twitter and its uses to Italian Twittersphere. Your post will be very useful for me.

    • Twitter (tommyw since you asked…) has it’s uses alright. It’s entertaining and there’s some pretty interesting users out there… from DowningStreet (the UK prime ministers office) to various prominent digerati. As more creative users join it’s going to be more and more interesting.

      It’s notoriously flakey, it’s ability to scale is in doubt, there’s other services which are better and offer more, but everyone is on it, sounds like a market leader to me.

      One thing I do like is you can set device updates per user, so a group of people can have their tweets arrive online by default and then have a particular account for the groups tweets sent to their cellphone. My team have access to an account which is just for them as a group, they can all update it and have their entire team get an update on their cell.

    • I start with Twitter every day and find good Web 2.0 websites. Since I only follow internet and school educators I don’t deal with much outside stuff, but like the personal info as well. Great resource, if used correctly.

    • I’ve also been using Twitter to put out calls for help with stories and research and such. It has worked on occasion. But I wonder if it might start losing its usefulness when the noise overwhelms the system. In other words, if everyone is asking for help, do people eventually turn away from it? I think focusing down on the following people who you know or think can help are keys to making it work. It will be interesting to see how it evolves — and how it can deal with scaling issues and business models. I still don’t understand how Twitter will make money outside of selling out.

    • Great post Mark!
      It took me a while to warm up to twitter. But now I use it as a vital part of my PLN.

    • Chris Boulder

      I love twitter, but it’s missing two or three easy-to-do features that would fix the over-load crap. Obvious ones, simple. For that reason, twitter gets no points

    • Hi Neil,
      Glad you liked the post. I didn’t write it, however, it was the fine work of MediaShift associate editor Jennifer Woodard Maderazo.

    • Ack! Mistyped captcha = deleted comment!!

      Long comment short:

      Twitter works great for me as a dynamic focus group and as a way to keep an eye on what’s bubbling up.

      It’s especially useful for me as I write and work in the tech space, but I think that when combined with services like Tweetscan, almost all journalists can and should find a good use for Twitter.

    • You actually reference my site in the “don’t know what it’s for”. That was actually an older post I wrote before I really got into Twitter. I actually don’t use it often to publish my own tweets but have found it invaluable for finding the latest news and updates on peoples sites.

      I’d say it’s probably more useful than RSS but the problem is it’s less automated.

      Anyway, thanks for the link and keep up the good work!

    • Thank you to everyone for your comments. It’s interesting to see what you are using Twitter for and your habits around who you follow and why. To all of you who gave me your Twitter username, I am now following you, and perhaps that might reveal a new use for Twitter: reader interaction.

      Kim, thanks for the tip on Twitterfox. I like it so far, though it has lost quite a few of my updates.

      Tommy, great tip re: DowningStreet. Pretty fascinating stuff.

      Mark G, I think the key to Twitter continuing to work as a resource is people giving back as much as they are receiving. In other words, if I’m on Twitter asking for help with stories, I’d better be prepared to help others with stuff that they need as well or they will quickly tire of me and my petitions. Blogger Chris Brogan is a good example of this; he asks a ton of questions on Twitter but also seems to offer help to anyone who asks. People will only keep coming back as long as it contributes something, and for many it seems to do that both in terms of usefulness and just casual socializing.

      Jason, I agree with you about Tweetscan and similar third-party applications making Twitter useful for any type of journalist. In fact, I think much of Twitter’s usefulness is coming from these extras which make it easier to hunt down information. Tweetscan is a good way to find out what many people think about a particular topic, such as a breaking news story.

      Saul, like you, I update on Twitter less than I actually use it to obtain information. I wonder if I shouldn’t start tossing out even more stuff that I think people might be interested in in order to contribute as much as I am taking away.

    • Laura

      the only thing i seem to spend more time doing apart from following posts on twitter is reading about twitter …

    • Nice post, cool site, keep it up.

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