For 2007, our Best Web LittleCo was Twitter, the microblogging/status application that captured the collective attention of Silicon Valley at SXSW last winter and has been on a meteoric rise ever since. We picked Twitter because it “has captured the imagination and become a new hybrid of chat, social networking and blogging.” But, unlike 2006’s Best LittleCo YouTube, which has become firmly entrenched in the mainstream consciousness, Twitter still exists outside of most mainstream circles.
Sure some heavily disputed numbers put Twitter into the mainstream with fairly deep penetration, but anecdotal evidence would suggest otherwise — most of my non-tech friends haven’t yet even heard of Twitter. But 2008 could be the year all that changes. Twitter might be about to grow up.
Patrick Ruffini over at TechPresident thinks this could be the year of Twitter. He cites downtime that Twitter recently experience when two major news events overloaded the service, Macworld and the US State of the Union address, as evidence of the service’s potential mainstream appeal. “While these spikes reveal some troubling capacity issues that Twitter will need to deal with, this is the surest sign that the service has gone mainstream in a way not anticipated by its founders,” writes Ruffini.
Twitter is fast becoming a serious platform for discourse and discussion. More than a status app, it is being used as a first alert mechanism for the dissemination of news and for immediate discussion surrounding that news. It is the coverage of news events and the continued emergence of citizen journalism that will push Twitter toward the mainstream this year.
Why Twitter Works for News
It’s fast. Increasingly mainstream news reporters and bloggers are utilizing Twitter to put up news tid bits as they happen, and commentary as it pops into their heads. For example, Ana Marie Cox, the Washington Editor of Time.com, maintains a Twitter account that is both informative and hilarious. As we recently reported John Dickerson, a political correspondent for Slate, uses Twitter to report from the US presidential campaign trail in near real-time. “It is much more authentic, because it really is from inside the room,” says Dickerson of Twitter, which has a visceral nature that reporters are beginning to embrace.
It’s open. By embracing an open API architecture from the start, Twitter has smartly nourished a large set of tools that help people use the service. This makes it easier for people to get content on Twitter in the manner most convenient and most comfortable to them, which in the long run should help drive adoption of the service. “The API has been arguably the most important, or maybe even inarguably, the most important thing we’ve done with Twitter,” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told us in September.
The API has also allowed for mashups that filter Twitter content making it easier to find. One relevant Twitter aggregator is Politweets (our coverage), which brings together all the messages sent over Twitter about the US election.
It’s two-way. Unlike TV or newspaper, Twitter allows for a conversation. Like its new media brethren, blogs, Twitter encourages discourse and feedback. For reporters that aren’t afraid to get down and dirty, Twitter is a golden opportunity to build a rapport with readers and gauge public opinion. It also makes readers feel more connected to the news when they can participate in a discussion about it as it happens, often times with the people reporting it first hand.
It fills a void. As Ruffini points out, Twitter is built for the new news cycle. “Traditional news operated on a 24-hour cycle. Blogs shortened this to minutes and hours. Twitter shortens it further to seconds,” he writes. “It’s not right for every piece of information. It’s certainly not well suited for longer analysis. But when it comes to instantly assembling raw data from several sources that then go into fully baked news stories, nothing beats it.”
Some Hurdles to Twitter Discourse
Sometimes, it’s too fast. Twitter happens in moments. If you think keeping up with the blogging cycle at big blogs like Engadget is tough, then keeping up with a thousand voices on Twitter is damn near impossible. For the tech-obsessed — the people like you and I who are on their computers all day already — keeping tabs on Twitter could easily become part of the routine. But for the mainstream audience, Twitter might need better filtering tools before people can really wrap their heads around it.
Third-party clients like Twitterific can help filter to a certain extent, but they’re not perfect.
It can be muddled. One of the strengths of Twitter is that it is a two-way street — you an talk back to the people who are talking to you. But it’s not threaded, so replies get shuffled around and often times, out of context, just become confusing. Further, when everyone is having a conversation at once, things get noisy. Twitter desperately needs a filter.
One recent attempt is Tweetmeme, a Twitter memetracker based on the concept of Techmeme. It works relatively well at figuring out what people are linking to on Twitter, but isn’t well suited to figuring out what people are talking about, and separating out those individual discussions (plus, it doesn’t filter for language, which can make it a bit confusing if you’re not multi-lingual).
It’s hard to navigate. There is a learning curve to Twitter. Finding people isn’t as easy as it should be (certainly not as easy as on mainstream social networks like MySpace or Facebook, which people are used to), and figuring out who to follow to get involved in the conversations you want to take part in requires some work as well.
Despite some potential hurdles, Twitter is being used more and more for mainstream news coverage. KPBS News San Diego uses Twitter to put out updates about stories, for example, and during the California wildfires last fall it was a must read. The potential for Twitter to be used for news dissemination is something the site’s founders realized early on during an earthquake.
With citizen journalism on the rise, it seems likely that Twitter will become an increasingly more important point for the distribution of breaking news during 2008, to the extent that traditional journalists will begin to pay more and more attention to it the way they have to blogs. Twitter won’t replace blogging or newspapers, but as Ruffini says, it “open sources the process of developing ideas and gathering news tips, giving us a complete window onto the news cycle.”