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From AJR,   April/May 2009  issue

The Twitter Explosion   

June/July preview»Whether they are reporting about it, finding sources on it or urging viewers, listeners and readers to follow them on it, journalists just can’t seem to get enough of the social networking service. Just how effective is it as a journalism tool?


By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     

It's OK to be sick and tired of Twitter. Heaven knows, it may be the world's most overhyped technology, the latest in an ever-lengthening list of overhyped technologies and cultural techno-fads stretching back to CB radio. LexisNexis counts more than 3,000 news stories mentioning the microblogging service in a five-day period in mid-April alone. A Google search churns up 400 million mentions. Naturally, a Twitter backlash is in full swing; no less than the likes of Maureen Dowd, Garry Trudeau and "The Daily Show" have made fun of this latest media obsession.

The withering overexposure no doubt reflects journalists' status as members of the Twittering class. Some well-known news-media names now have Twitter followings that are almost as large as the circulation of their newspapers or viewership of their TV shows. "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos had more than 564,000 people following his 140-character tweets as of mid-May. Stephanopoulos, tweeting on April 22: "Just finished breakfast (flatbread w sour cherries) in Tehran. Saw President Ahmedinejad yesterday. Trying to see Roxana Saberi today." Other mass-media Twitteurs include "Meet the Press" host David Gregory (528,356 followers), MSNBC's Rachel Maddow (506,951), National Public Radio host Scott Simon (360,861), and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue (306,371).

For journalists, the real question is whether Twitter is more than just the latest info-plaything. Does it "work" in any meaningful way — as a news-dissemination channel, a reporting and source-building tool, a promotional platform? Or is it merely, to buy the caricature, just a banal, narcississtic and often addictive time suck?

The unsatisfying answer: It all depends.

For anyone still in the dark about Twitter, a quick bit of background: Twitter, created by a San Francisco startup called Obvious and publicly released in August 2006, is a free social networking service that enables anyone to post pithy messages, known as tweets, to groups of self-designated followers. The tweets can be sent from and received by any kind of device — desktop, laptop, BlackBerry, cellphone. It's like instant messaging or text messaging, but one-to-many, instead of one-to-one. Twitter has grown with astounding speed, attracting 17 million visitors in April, an 83 percent gain over the previous month, according to the research firm comScore.

News organizations and reporters have been quick to adopt Twitter for an obvious reason: Its speed and brevity make it ideal for pushing out scoops and breaking news to Twitter-savvy readers. The Oregonian in Portland may have been the mainstream media pioneer in this regard; it began posting its own links and aggregating citizen tweets about flooding and road closures during heavy storms in central Oregon in late 2007, when Twitter barely had 500,000 users nationwide. Other newspapers have subsequently used Twitter to post swift-changing updates following natural disasters in their areas.

Reporters now routinely tweet from all kinds of events — speeches, meetings and conferences, sports events. In February, a federal judge gave his blessing to Ron Sylvester of the Wichita Eagle to use Twitter to report on a trial of six suspected gang members, the first time tweeting had been permitted inside a federal courtroom. Sylvester tweeted frequently from the trial, providing a nearly contemporaneous account. On the other hand, not all tweets are equally useful. 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.

Twitter "works best in situations where the story is changing so fast that the mainstream media can't assemble all the facts at once," says Craig Stoltz, a "semi-evangelical" Twitter user and new-media consultant who writes a lively tech blog called Web2.0h...Really? (2ohreally.com). "The plane crash, the riot, the political event — these are the kinds of stories where time is important and the facts are scattered."

In fact, Twitter can be a serious aid in reporting. It can be a living, breathing tip sheet for facts, new sources and story ideas. It can provide instantaneous access to hard-to-reach newsmakers, given that there's no PR person standing between a reporter and a tweet to a government official or corporate executive. It can also be a blunt instrument for crowdsourcing. When a vacant building collapsed in late April, New York Times reporters put out the Twitter equivalent of an APB: "Seeking any eyewitnesses to Lower Manhattan building collapse." Imagine the torrent of data that would have been available to the Times had Twitter been around on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Twitter's optimal use requires a little care and feeding. By seeding and pruning her "following" and "followers" lists on Twitter, blogger Nancy Shute of USNews.com has assembled her own interactive community of thought leaders, expert sources, fellow journalists and just plain folks interested in her specialties, science and medicine. Her running conversation with this network occasionally leads to story tips, she says. In the early days of the discovery of salmonella-infected peanut butter, for instance, a federal employee she follows on Twitter tweeted the news that government health officials would soon be using Twitter to highlight new information about the outbreak, a first for the Feds. Shute checked it out. Her scoop was on her blog a few hours later.

Monica Guzman, a blogger for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, doesn't just trade tips, quips and gossip with her Twitter circle; she actually meets with her Twitter "community" at a local coffeehouse on a regular basis, cultivating a deeper relationship with like-minded sources.

Veteran new-media blogger and Arizona State University journalism professor Dan Gillmor says journalists should view Twitter as a "collective intelligence system" that provides early warnings about trends, people and news. Journalists, he says, should "follow people who point them to things they should know about" and direct questions back to them to do better reporting. He recommends setting up keyword searches and understanding "hashtags," Twitter-speak for a group of tweets about the same subject or event, indicated by a # sign and topic word (such as "swineflu").

If he were running a news organization, Paul Grabowicz, director of the new-media program at the University of California, Berkeley's journalism school, says Twitter would be as much a part of his newsroom's daily reporting arsenal as phones and notepads. "I would be asking everyone on my staff, 'Who are the people and target groups you're trying to reach? Can you start a Twitter group to follow those people?' " Twitter, he says, enables reporters "to reach people where they are. People are busy, but they're out there consuming and exchanging information on these networks. This is a way of bridging the gap with them and being more engaged with them. News reporters need to be on the ground floor of this, instead of when the horse has left the barn."

Twitter can also be a kind of community organizing tool for the newsroom itself. When big stories have broken, a few news organizations have channeled the freewheeling exchanges and debates that explode all over Twitter by creating their own hashtags. A day before the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages in the state, the Des Moines Register created its own hashtag, #iagaymarriage. The tag quickly caught on, becoming so popular that competitors like the Gazette in Cedar Rapids wound up tagging their tweets with it. The Register posted excerpts of some of the resulting discussion, turning it into the 21st century equivalent of the classic man-on-the-street opinion feature. The Herald in Everett, Washington, did something similar earlier this year when its region was flooded; the paper's #waflood hashtag became the go-to code for bulletins affecting the community and a rich source of news and reactions for the Herald.

Hashtags are just one of the tools that bring coherence to what can seem like Twitter's tower of Babel. Sites such as Tweetcloud.com and Twitscoop.com, which track the hottest topics on Twitter, are like police scanners for social media networks. They offer a real-time glimpse into what people, or people on Twitter anyway, are buzzing about (admittedly, most of the buzz is fairly predictable, such as chatter about the day's big game, or Cinco de Mayo on May 5). Tweetmeme.com even shows the most popular links that people on Twitter have posted, another trick Google hasn't learned yet.

The process works the other way, too; search engines like twist.flaptor.com and Twitter's own search.twitter.com make it possible to search Twitter's collected musings on just about any topic. It's true that the searches more often turn up haystacks of gibberish instead of gems, but it can also be a way to find breaking news.

"Two or three years ago, I would have said RSS feeds were the best way to keep track of a topic. I now think Twitter is better," says < a href='http://twitter.com/markbriggs'> Mark Briggs, who runs a software development company and is the author of "Journalism 2.0," a book about new digital reporting methods.

Briggs, who tweets three or four times a day, tries to observe an 80-20 rule: about 80 percent of his tweets add something to the conversation (a link, a fact), and about 20 percent "take" (a request for contacts or information, a link to his latest work). "People aren't going to follow you if all you do is say, 'Check out my new blog post,' " he says. "There's a lot of karma on Twitter. The more you contribute, the more you get out of it."

Stoltz cites BusinessWeek Executive Editor John A. Byrne as a favorite tweeter. Among other things, Byrne will tweet details of the magazine's news meetings and explain its editorial decisions. Gillmor likes the tweets of Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal's tech-gadget guru, and Om Malik, a widely followed tech blogger (GigaOm.com). "They don't overdo it," he says.

Of course, others do, and that may be Twitter's biggest drawback. In practice, the idea that friends (and friends of friends) will pass on useful and valuable information is belied by the fact that Twitter can be an exceptionally inefficient channel, if not a downright maddening one. As any Twitteur knows, you've got to sift through tons of dross ("I'm washing my hair!") before a truly useful piece of information turns up. The question is, do you really need Twitter for that? Wouldn't the same information arrive via other means — blogs, e-mail, RSS feeds, even an old-school phone call?

What's more, Twitter's 140-character proscription creates another inefficiency: You usually don't know what the link you've just been sent is until you click on it — at which point you may discover that you're looking at something you saw two days earlier and didn't care about then. Facebook's news feeds, which aren't restricted to 140 characters and provide a look at the link, can be a much faster alternative.

Twitter proponents say they can improve their signal-to-noise ratio by paring their lists of people they follow, keeping only the most consistently useful. But it does take some trial and error. When Nancy Shute "unfollowed" a fellow science writer who had posted one too many "I'm-going-out-for-coffee" tweets, her fellow journalist let her know that she was hurt. It is, after all, a social network.

Still, another attractive aspect of Twitter to journalists is who tweets, and where. Twitter isn't, primarily, the province of teens and college students. The service has become firmly established among adults, the majority of whom say they use the site while at work. According to Nielsen Online, people age 35-49 were the largest single group of tweeters, making up about 42 percent of the total in February (in fact, people older than 55 exceeded the number of users age 25 to 34). This means that Twitter appeals to an older, more serious crowd than its more popular social networking cousins, Facebook and MySpace. As no less an authority than my teenage daughter says with classic you're-so-out-of-it-dad disdain, "Nobody uses Twitter in high school. We have Facebook and texting. Twitter's not relevant." Case closed.

All of which means that Twitter attracts the sort of people that media people should love — those who are interested in, and engaged with, the news. ComScore analyst Andrew Lipsman has found that the average Twitter user is two to three times more likely to visit a leading news Web site than the average person (8 percent of all Twitter users went to LATimes.com in March, for example, versus 2.7 percent of all Web users).

For all its pluses, two question marks still hang over Twitter. The first: Can Twitter ever create a viable business model? The company still hasn't figured out how to convert its millions of users into paying customers. Twitter isn't merely unprofitable like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube; it has no meaningful sources of revenue at all. Its overhead is essentially covered by the $55 million that venture capitalists have put into it, in the hope that it will someday pay off.

That doesn't mean Twitter is doomed (Google went four years without much revenue), but it does cloud its future. Officially, Twitter says still it's considering "many appealing opportunities for generating revenue," and it seems to be in no great hurry to settle on a business plan. Its model could be built on advertising, though it's hard to know exactly where ads would fit on crowded Twitter pages. It could be selling Twitter as a custom service to businesses, or it could be something else entirely.

Ultimately, it probably doesn't matter, Craig Stoltz says. The technology is simple enough (software engineer Jack Dorsey created Twitter in just two weeks) that it could be easily adapted by others in the event of Twitter's demise, he says.

A second, related question is whether tweeting, if not Twitter, has any staying power. Yes, Twitter's growth has been explosive (thanks in part to all the promotion the news media have given it), but it's less clear how dedicated all those newbies are to their 140-character haikus. In late April, new data from Nielsen showed that 60 percent of the people who sign up for Twitter don't return the following month — twice the "I-don't-get-it" factor that Facebook or MySpace faced at a similar stage of their development. Nielsen analyst David Martin calls this retention pattern a long-term problem; Twitter, he notes, will run out of new recruits long before it can achieve widespread acceptance on the Internet. Mediaweek greeted this observation by suggesting that Twitter might be today's Second Life, another site with devoted followers that has never lived up to its gargantuan hype.

For people in the news business, there's one other rarely explored consideration: What does it mean for a journalist to tweet? A recent incident suggests the rules, and the roles, aren't always clear.

In late March, Washington Post book critic Ron Charles tweeted a juicy tidbit from a conversation he'd had with an unnamed source: "Frequent contributor tells me the New Yorker is considering switch to biweekly or monthly. Recession pains."

A scoop? Nope. "I just threw it out there," Charles says. "It was a careless, journalistically irresponsible thing to do." Within 10 minutes, he says, "it seemed like the whole Internet went crazy. It was terrifying."

When Charles was reliably informed via e-mail a few minutes later that his tip was wrong, he sent out another tweet knocking down his original post. But by then Charles' comment had been retweeted by others, and the story was out there. Reporters from the Chicago City Paper and New York Observer quickly picked up on it, drawing full denials from New Yorker Editor David Remnick.

Charles says his original message was "naïve" and that he shouldn't have spread a rumor. But as he points out, that's not the end of it. With their intimacy and immediacy, social networks can put journalists in murky territory: "Am I a reporter [when tweeting]? Am I an editor? Am I a critic? Or am I just talking among friends?"

Mark Briggs answers that reporters are obligated to uphold ethical standards even while casually tweeting. "Whatever you put out there doesn't have to be triple checked, but it can't be reckless or inaccurate, either," he says. "You also have to respect other people's work. Don't take credit for it if it's not yours."

But the issues don't stop there. What if, asks Ron Charles, someone sues over a libelous tweet? Would the tweeter's employer be as culpable as the tweeter, given that tweets, arguably, are an extension of the journalist's work? Says Charles, "We have no guidance at all."

In late April, when I asked the Post's executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, about Charles' comments, and the flap about Charles' original New Yorker tweet, he more or less shrugged, and said he hadn't formulated a policy about what was acceptable for the newspaper's Twittering staffers. By mid-May, however, he had a few answers: "When it comes to Twittering for the Post, our senior editors should know beforehand if a reporter plans to Twitter or otherwise live-blog something she is covering," he said. "Anything controversial should be checked with an editor before transmission. Tone is also important: we don't use new media to get into verbal fisticuffs with rivals or critics or to advance personal agendas." Outside of work, "We assume that our journalists won't embarrass the Post or impair their journalistic independence through anything they may publish on Twitter, Facebook, blogs or any other new media. We don't and can't practically monitor everything our reporters might do in their own time, so we rely primarily on their good judgment and common sense."

That suggests that some aspects of Twitter are still under development, at least for journalists. Chalk it up to the growing pains of any new relationship. The question is how long this relationship will last. Sure, it's burning red-hot now. But will you still love Twitter tomorrow?

Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com), a Washington Post reporter, writes frequently about the media for the Post and AJR. He wrote about the AP's decision to sell news to online portals in AJR's April/May issue.