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Twitter Journalism

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I spent much of last fall at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government as a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy. While there, I researched issues related to journalism, trust and credibility -- and in particular what role emerging social media might play in addressing those concerns. Among the most interesting new social media platforms is the rapidly evolving Twitter. I spoke recently with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Here's the second in a series of posts on the topic of emerging media and journalism. (Part 1 here: Facebook Journalism.)
- Rory O'Connor

The first report of the miraculous rescue of 150 passengers from a US Airways jet floating in the Hudson River also provided the latest evidence -- if indeed it was still needed -- that emerging social media are not only supplementing but supplanting the legacy mainstream media.

Twitter, the "microblogging" short message service created in 2006 and now used by millions, beat the world to the story that a jet had gone down in the drink. Despite the fact that the headquarters of international wire services, major metropolitan newspapers, and big-time television networks are literally opposite the crash site, Twitter user Janis Krums scooped them all when he "tweeted" his report of "a plane in the Hudson" and posted an iPhone photo on TwitPic, all while rescue boats were still en route. The image spread around the social media world so rapidly -- nearly 40,000 viewed the photo in four hours - that heavy traffic soon crashed the site.

When it comes to breaking news -- from heroism on the Hudson to terror in Mumbai to calamity in California -- Twitter leads the pack these days. Early adopters have known of its news utility for sometime. Although not envisioned or designed for use as an 'instant' information source, it quickly morphed into one, as short bursts of text and images from citizens on-the-scene of both manmade and natural disasters began to spread virally around the globe at the speed of light. In short order, and in a world where legacy media is downsizing and shutting bureaus worldwide, Twitter has become a go-to source of news you can use when and where you want and need it -- often when and where the legacy media cannot yet or no longer supplies it.

ROC: What is Twitter? How would you describe it? Is it a social network?

BS: Twitter is a 24 hr feed of everyone in world; a soundtrack to our universal film; the Zeitgeist to news on wires. Twitter is social media, but NOT a social network... it's a place where you can zoom in and out on trends and emergent topics; when you think of the entire ecosystem as an organism, that's when it begins to get really interesting....

Twitter is about the idea of an organic approach to communication. We come at it indirectly, organically...Twitter messages only go to an opt-in community, which makes it easier to engage in open conversation. Of course, when a news event happens, we want more engagement. At other times, you can turn it off, as the settings allow user control.

ROC: What are Twitter's uses for journalists?

BS: The news applications surprised us... We noticed in prototypes early on, though, that things like earthquakes led to Twitter updates. The first Twitter report of the ground shaking during recent tremors in California, for example, came nine minutes before the first Associated Press alert. So we knew early on that a shared event such as an earthquake would lead people to look at Twitter for news almost without thinking.

ROC: Are there advantages to Twitter beyond speed, beyond simply being first with breaking news?

BZ: Well, during the earthquake I'm referring to, there was a lot of depth of reporting as well -- 3600 separate updates on Twitter, which is the equivalent of a fifty thousand word book in terms of content size. And I'm confident that had the quake been worse, the next step would be in journalists using it to find human-interest stories. (Incidentally, we might also have seen social collaboration activated via the service to help people!)

It's also interesting that Verizon's voice network broke down during the quake, but Twitter's service didn't, because our packet switching technology is more reliable than telephones. But in the end, it's not about technology -- it's about the idea of connecting in groups more quickly and efficiently.

ROC: What are some ways journalists are using Twitter?

BZ: We were also surprised at how quickly and expertly news organizations -- places like the New York Times, CNN and so on -- began to use Twitter. They just jumped in and impressed us with how they engaged, and their hybrid approach. Reuters, for example, began watching Twitter for trends, and found it worked. We gave help, support, and even our API (application programming interface) to the Reuters Lab people. Then CNN began using us to access information, and to find and create stories. Rick Sanchez at CNN, for example, is using both Facebook and Twitter and getting real time feedback... And the Los Angeles Times took the Twitter feed about the wildfires and put it on their home page.

Another good example is last spring's story of the Twitter user who blogged just one word -- "Arrested" - and had the story of his detention splashed instantly to the world's attention, thus leading to his quick release.

ROC: Is Twitter also useful in search?

BS: We are involved on a macro level in documenting events. If you go to Search.twitter.com you can discover and cover trends in detail every minute. You could call it 'search, ' but it's really not. 'Search' on Twitter is more about filtering results before they hit the Internet -- so it's more a kind of 'filter' than actual 'search.'

ROC: Can social media such as Twitter help solve journalism's trust and credibility problem?

BS: We think that social media is largely comparable to traditional approach, in that credibility is key. In the future, social media tools will help the news media know such things as the location of the person reporting, we will be able to provide a social graph of our users... Can we then triangulate about their credibility via algorithm? We can certainly begin to get very sophisticated on credibility with new tools, and combine that with journalists leveraging open systems such as ours to find and vet crowd sources, story leads, etc.

Looking ahead, I see more sophisticated tools to deal with this issue. A credibility algorithm may be possible one day. Maybe it is even now, as rudimentary as it would still be. Our recent election feed, for example, was a smart feed. As we go forward and learn more about open systems, we can filter better and thus get more credibility. But filtering is how we get there...so one should not rely on social media alone.