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Twitter is the crack cocaine of news hounds

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5 May 2011
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Paul Mason, economics editor of Newsnight had hardly declared Twitter his primary destination for breaking news last week, when the fledgling platform underscored its importance with a series of journalistic coups.

Sohaib Athar, an IT expert with a touching knack for mixing cynicism with a dry turn of phrase, lives in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He unwittingly became embroiled in a media storm when he live-tweeted (Storify curation here) the assault on fugitive Osama Bin Laden’s abode.

More than 100,000 followers later, ReallyVirtual is the social web’s newest if unwilling amateur star.

Over in the US, a pro – Lauren Young – works for Reuters. She recounted her experience that same evening:

I was sitting in my home office, helping my husband file our, um, overdue taxes when I noticed a Tweet from Reuters at 21:54 ET that the president would “make a statement shortly.”

I’m not sure if Reuters was first, but we were definitely early. Other news organizations began reporting an Obama statement. Within 10 minutes, the Twittersphere was in a tizzy. Musings included the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi or something “relating to national security.” Others joked that the president was making an announcement simply to interrupt Donald Trump’s show “The Apprentice.”

But plenty of folks predicted that Osama bin Laden was dead. The first reliable report came from Keith Urbahn, Donald Rumsfeld’s spokesman. It took more than an hour for President Obama to speak to nation, well past the reported 22:30 ET address. But, by then, we all knew the news.

Hot damn!

This is THE Keith Urbahn Tweet. “Hot damn!”

This Tweet came a good 20 minutes or so before the first news organisation, ABC News, made the claim. Like many other organisations Reuters’ Lauren Young went on to describe this as Twitter’s “defining moment”.

In London the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones agrees. He got up at 7:00 that morning and heard the news the traditional way. He immediately Tweeted it but…

“…only to be bombarded with messages saying this was now very old news. In the age of Twitter you have to be online all night to keep up with events.”

Rory speculated as to why:

“So Twitter was first with the news, partly because it has become the medium now used by people in the know to spread information.”

What is the wider significance of all this for communication professionals?

So Twitter is a really significant platform. Perhaps more so than Facebook? No. They are very different beasts allowing for things to be done in different ways. In Egypt we saw revolutionary leaders organise on Twitter, but the platform where the masses were mobilised towards action was Facebook.

Unlike Twitter, Facebook is far less real time. If you miss something significant on Facebook, you can always catch up with it later. On the other hand, it is very easy to miss something because of Facebook’s Edgerank Algorithm. You will only pick up on it when and if the story has reached critical mass. And because Facebook is a series of often closed networks, how information spreads is more opaque and uneven.

You Tweet therefor you are

As we explained Twitter is not a mass platform like Facebook is. You don’t have a nice big profile page on Twitter. On Twitter it’s hard to just be, you need to say something interesting or you become invisible. And because of this we think that in its current form, Twitter is unlikely to ever have the scale of Facebook.

It is the place for people that have something to say. And because of this Twitter is also the place for people that like to be in the know.

But what are the key insights into Twitter’s particular real time power?

The power of real time

Emily Bell has written an excellent blog pos, which makes a good start at explaining our brave new world. She muses that:

“…The rise of the realtime social web has changed everything. The network effect now means that people with connectivity and curiosity really do live where news breaks

…stories are most engaging when they are happening, and that the level of interest and engagement for big stories is only increased when they are supplemented with context, new facts and conversation also in real time

…New audiences now assess quality through immediacy and relevance. You fail to register a story when it breaks, you lose an opportunity…”

If you want to grow your relevance and network on Twitter fast, one sure way is to be talking about and curating information about real time events. That is when people are most engaged.

If you know the subject, and if you can add context. So much better.

That is what Andy Carvin and Sultan Al Qassemi did throughout the Arab Spring: curating and annotating Tweets, and, particularly in the case of Qassemi, providing context and a fuller picture. RWW has shown how Carvin’s curating has made his Twitter followers grow.

Andy Carvin Twitter Growth

Andy Carvin Twitter Growth

I can talk from personal experience. As you may have deduced from this and this blog post, during January, I got particularly into events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt and how social media was playing a role. I followed it closely, and reported all I could find, and ReTweeted a lot. Look at my follower graph during that period.

Growth of my Twitter account during the Egyptian uprising

There is an easy way for people to get into this kind of journalism. By opening up their reporting process. Bell again:

“Carvin’s skill is in being timely, and diligent. He tweeted up to 500 times a day at the height of the Egyptian revolution, yet he never left Washington. Of course some would argue this is not ‘proper reporting’ although fewer and fewer people would actually contest that it doesn’t bear the hallmarks of the highest quality reporting. But every news organisation has desk editors don’t they? And desk editors follow stories through back channels, conversations, reading, watching and listening to material relevat to their field. Most desk editors will be totally engaged on every story of this magnitude to the same kind of sleepless depth as Andy Carvin, yet almost no desk editors expose this work in the way Carvin does. Why not?”

Yes, why not?

In the meantime, a massive debate has broken out whether what ReallyVirtual did was journalism. The Poyntner Institute points out that regardless of your view, ReallyVirtual now can use his new-found distribution network anyway he likes. And what has he been up to? Says Poyntner:

And in the days after the raid, he decided to use it to act like a journalist,posting photos of the compound and of the media covering the story.

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