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Why you need Twitter

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(cross-posted from Shift Lock, my column in The Publisher)

Imagine a simple, free, tool that lets ordinary people broadcast — instantly, to the entire wired world — what they had for lunch, which bus they’re waiting for, or how much they regret having chosen the purple sweater to go with the red skirt this morning.
Imagine thousands — no, millions — of people picking up that tool and using it every single day.
Welcome to Twitter.
Twitter is a free, web-based “micro-blogging” tool that asks the question “What are you doing?” and then gives you just 140 characters (about the length of this sentence so far) to answer that question. Sign up and you can post your answers and read and follow anyone else’s on your computer, in your email, or sent as a text message to your cell phone.
Here’s what someone named tresson posted literally 10 seconds ago:

“Just woke up, took my meds, and am listening to radio tiki.”

and five seconds after that, amid a torrent of similar ‘tweets’ I see this, from someone named philrandolph:

“Just finished Zach’s hockey practice, now on our way to church”

And on and on and on, an exhausting and inexhaustible raging river of mundanities; the Twitter army sends and receives millions of these missives every single day.
I’ll bet many of you have never, or only recently, heard of Twitter (it’s two years old next month). And I bet most of you share the opinion expressed by one reporter who, when I introduced her to Twitter during a course and asked her what she thought of it, snarled, “I think some people need to get a life!”
Wrong answer.
Twitter has a lot to teach us about our emerging digital culture; about the way the web works, the things our readers want and do, and the places we should be if we are going to play anywhere near as central a role in this culture as we did the print culture.
While many of the messages people send each other are as dull as this one avhutch just posted:

“All that pizza really wrecked my sleep last night”

other people have found other uses for the tool. Since people sign up to “follow” someone’s twitters, the service is really a free, subscription-based, publishing tool. It’s constrained by the 140 character limit, but brevity is a virtue on the web.
Two main uses have emerged: it helps people to have conversations within highly scattered populations; and it’s become a powerful tool for pushing news out to willing recipients. Some examples:

  • Print reporters and bloggers have used Twitter to scoop radio and TV by providing live reporting of conferences and everything from the US presidential primaries to the funeral of a small boy who’d been killed by an ice cream truck;
  • NASA announced the apparent discovery of water on Mars via Twitter;
  • The Los Angeles Fire Department (and tens of thousands of Californians) used Twitter during last year’s wild fires to broadcast and receive up-to-the-second information about the fire’s paths and progress;
  • Twitter users broadcast breaking news about earthquakes in China, Mexico and California well ahead of authorities or mainstream media;
  • More than 300 newspapers use Twitter to inform readers of breaking news, using software to automatically send headlines and links to their stories the second they’re posted to the website. The New York Times has nearly two dozen Twitter accounts offering breaking news on everything from food to politics.

So. What does all this tell us? Two things, I think.
Firstly, a significant group of people want to participate in the creation and distribution of news, not just it’s consumption, and once handed a tool like Twitter, they leap at the chance. By the millions, they leap at the chance.
You’d be foolish not to find a way to join that conversation, to make it easy for these people to distribute your news for you. This growing digital culture has had much less impact on weeklies than dailies mostly because the big internet ad players, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, have yet to figure out a) how to effectively deliver affordable, geographically targeted local display ads and b) they have yet to figure out a better model for flyer delivery. But they’re working on it, and working hard. And with a reported $25 billion in ad revenues last year, Google, for one, can afford to spend heavily to crack this market. So sitting still probably isn’t much of an option.
Secondly, the fact that Twitter could be so widely used but still so invisible in our print and television culture points to the continuing, deep and inevitable fragmentation of what we used to think of as our audience.
If we want our stories and information to find an audience, we will have to find ways — like Twitter and it’s imitators Pownce and Jaiku and Identi.ca and Friendfeed and a hundred others — to seed the digital world with it. And that means doing much, much more than simply creating a website – even one that features video and multi-media and breaking news.
Some weeklies are already experimenting with free web services, like Twitter, as they try and figure out how to follow their audiences on line. Staff at the tiny New Hamburg Independent, more or less locked into a web publishing system that simply re-published their newspaper on-line, used the free blogging service WordPress.com to create The Indy, a breaking news blog in a town where breaking news can be as simple as the results of the annual go cart derby. Readers can sign up for Twitter to get a message every time a new news items is posted online. During spring floods this year The Indy was a must-read for the whole town as they tracked the river’s rising waters.
Maybe what we need are digital circulation managers, someone to make sure that we’re hawking our stories wherever our readers are spending their time.
It’s an idea I’ll return to in the months ahead. In the meantime, why not try a little  twitter?

Apps:
Twitter – A free, web-based, microblogging tool
Twitterfeed – A free, web-based service that will take the RSS feed from a news website and automagically publish the headlines and links via Twitter.
WordPress.com – A free, easy-to-use blogging service.
Sites:
Twitter Fan – A wiki (user-edited website) that’s almost encyclopedic in it’s coverage of Twitter. Check out http://twitter.pbwiki.com
The Indy – Community news blog for The New Hamburg Independent, built with WordPress
Bill

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