How do you know when a social media tool has reached the farthest corners of the Earth? When the Dalai Lama signs up.
OK, the Dalai Lama didn't actually create a Twitter account. But it's almost as surreal that an impostor account called OHHDL (Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama) recently amassed nearly 20,000 followers in only two days, assisted by news organizations that mistakenly perpetuated the hoax. Anything seems possible these days, right? His Holiness has an active (though not official) Facebook page with more than 140,000 fans; a Twitter feed might not be far behind.
Is it any less startling that the Tweets of more than 85 members of Congress can be found at tweetcongress.org? A recent weekend update from Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., reads: "Stopped at the Stetson Outlet in St. Joseph. Bought some blue jeans." From Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.: "Packing to fly back to DC tomorrow. Having breakfast with Governor Schwarzenegger on Monday." Several members tweeted through President Barack Obama's speech to Congress in February.
One might have the impression that most of what transpires on Twitter is mundane, vain or weird. You'll find no argument here. But Twitter is also being used in interesting and important ways-and there's persuasive evidence that newsrooms, social-media-fatigued though they may be, should give it a shot. (For those who've tried to ignore it, Twitter is a tool for blasting out 140-character messages to "Followers" who have subscribed to receive one's "Tweets." This is known as micro-blogging. Twitter can be accessed on the Web, but most people send and monitor Tweets from mobile devices. For a simple primer, go to YouTube and search "Twitter in Plain English.")
The best-known early use of Twitter as a news tool occurred during the Southern California wildfires of October 2007. News organizations such as the Los Angeles Times and San Diego public radio station KPBS discovered a perfect use for Twitter: efficiently dispatching urgent bits of information-evacuation orders, shelter locations, firefighting progress-to large groups of mobile people. An archive of the Times' Twitter feed is still available.
In January, Janis Krums, a passenger on a ferry at the scene of US Airways Flight 1549's emergency landing in the Hudson River, provided one of the first on-scene reports of the incident, sending a short text message and a photo to his Twitter stream.
Between such dramatic events, media outlets have used Twitter in various ways. Many automatically feed Web headlines to their Twitter streams. It's an acceptable start, but not the best use of the format.
Twitter-fluent newsrooms and journalists will use the tool not only as a hook into their Web sites, but also as a stand-alone channel. They'll send rapid-fire Tweets during breaking news events, invite suggestions and questions from subscribers and post self-contained updates that don't require the user to click to a Web page. WTHR-TV in Indianapolis posts assignment desk updates . DelawareOnline.com, the Web site of Wilmington's News Journal, has a Twitter stream that tracks local crime stories. A recent post reads: "Crab theft crime has been solved. details comin' up." (Copy editors, abandon all hope.)
Perhaps the best reason to experiment with Twitter is that it's a direct link to elusive and valuable audiences. According to a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, nearly one in five 18- to 34-year-olds has used Twitter or a similar service. Twitter users are substantially more likely to read a newspaper on a smartphone, cellphone or Web site than non-Twittering Internet users. Twitter users are also more likely to have wireless connections, watch news video online and use social networks such as Facebook. The only thing they are less likely to do is read a printed newspaper. Twitter could be a way to reach younger people who are interested in certain kinds of news but don't spend all their time on news Web sites.
What's the revenue model? As with many wildly popular startups, it's not clear yet. Twitter might decide to sell ads on its site, or start charging corporations, such as Starbucks and Whole Foods, that Twitter for marketing purposes. For news organizations, the most likely benefit is increased traffic from Twitter links, and from new users who discover Web offerings through Twitter feeds. It's not exactly money in the bank, but it seems like a reasonable bet.
At the very least, newsrooms need to know what's happening on Twitter and consider the opportunities it offers. In the coming year, we will hear of newsrooms and individual journalists experimenting with Twitter in new ways. Others, exhausted from all the blogging, Facebooking and YouTubeing, might decide to wait and watch a little longer. As a note on Twitter.com concluded at the end of the Dalai Lama hoax, "Should His Holiness decide to take up Twittering for real, we'll be sure to Follow."