August 16, 2007

I never thought I’d become a twitterer who twittered tweets.

Up until just a couple weeks ago, I considered Twitter to be another social networking site that would only add to the hours I already spend each day connecting with friends via Facebook, Instant Messenger and e-mail.

But then I started to wonder why so many other young journalists I befriended during Poynter’s six-week fellowship for recent college graduates were intent on using this site. Curiosity, and an invitation from a friend, compelled me to join. As I researched the site, I found that news organizations aren’t just writing about Twitter — they’re using it as a publishing resource for readers and journalists.

The Orlando Sentinel, for instance, most recently used Twitter to post updates on the Atlantis and Endeavour shuttle launches this summer. The New York Times, meanwhile, updates its Twitter account at least a couple times an hour, posting Times headlines with links to related articles. Representatives of both news organizations said using Twitter is one way of connecting to users who may not otherwise read a newspaper or visit a news organization’s Web site.

At its most basic level, Twitter is a networking tool that helps users keep abreast of what friends, or strangers, are doing. For news organizations, it is a resource for publishing work, finding story ideas and communicating with other journalists.

By clicking on Twitter’s public timeline — a random listing of Twitterers that is updated every four minutes — you can click on a profile and see what it looks like. Here is Poynter’s Twitter page, which I recently created.

Prompted by the question, “What are you doing?,” users type brief responses onto their Twitter page to update others on their lives, day by day, hour by hour. Responses are limited to 140 characters or fewer and can be posted to the Web via cell phone, Instant Messenger or the user’s browser. If you’re interested in giving Twitter a try, take a look at my step-by-step tutorial

The posts, which some people update several times an hour, are quirky, funny, serious and at times outrageous. On a recent day, a Twitterer by the name of Alex from San Francisco posted, “Completely wiped from volleyball. One week off did me in.” Deb, a Twitterer from the Boston area, wrote, “excited to have a new blackberry to replace my lost one so I can twitter more on the road…” And Ariel from Kansas City typed, “Oh, geeky 80s music, i <3 you,” using the emoticon of a heart, represented by the “less-than” symbol and the number three.

Twitter users, called “Twitterers,” can post “tweets” for “followers” to view. Twitterers can choose to keep their updates private so that only their followers can view their posts. By not selecting this privacy setting, a user’s Twitter page is available for anyone to see.

Many in the Twitter world have developed a unique lingo to refer to the site and the activity of its users. Here is a list of “Twitter terms” compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle:

  • Twitterer: A user of Twitter.
  • Twittering: To send a Twitter message.
  • Twittermob: An unruly and ragtag horde of people who descend on an ill-prepared location after a provocative Twitter message.
  • Twittercal mass: A community that has achieved a critical mass of twitterers.
  • Twittermaps: A mashup technology that lets Twitter users find each other using Google maps.
  • Twitterrific and Twitteroo: Two services that let users post to Twitter using a Mac or PC.
  • Twitterpated: To be overwhelmed with Twitter messages.
  • Twitterrhea: The act of sending too many Twitter messages.

Publicly launched about a year ago, Twitter is not without competition, considering the variety of social networking sites available on the Web. The site is different from other social networking sites such as Facebook, however, in its emphasis on brevity. It also does not offer the same game-like features found on Facebook.

Perhaps the most similar service is a new social networking site called Pownce, which was publicly launched in late June. Co-founded by Kevin Rose, co-founder and chief architect of Digg, Pownce combines file sharing with messaging. The site is different from e-mail in that users can create their own Pownce profile page, which lists each message he or she has posted. Sites of this nature seem to be growing more and more popular as the desire to peek into the world of others persists.

With Twittervision and Twittervision 3D, for instance, users can virtually connect with others across the world. Created by David Troy, a software developer from Maryland, Twittervision superimposes Twitter’s public time line onto an interactive Google map of the world. Tweets appear sporadically across the global map as Twitterers post them, giving viewers an opportunity to see virtually what others are doing around the world. During a recent visit to the site, I could see what people in Japan, England, Ireland and Italy were posting.

Using Twitterholic, a Twitter tracking site, viewers can see the top 100 Twitterers, ranked by the number of followers they have. Most Twitterers have small groups of followers, but Twitterholic shows some Twitterers like Troy, who has an estimated 8,000 followers. On Twitterholic’s list of top 100 Twitterers, there are some familiar faces: Bill Clinton, Stephen Colbert and David Letterman to name a few. A quick look at those sites reflects a goal of mockery as opposed to promotion, produced by creators other than Clinton, Colbert or Letterman.  

According to Tracy Russo, director of online communications for the presidential campaign of Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., Edwards generally updates his Twitter page himself. His page, which has more than 3,300 followers, features posts such as this one dated Aug. 23: “Just kicked off the NH bus tour in Hanover! Great crowd.” Russ said that if a staff member from his campaign posts something, the post is followed by the word “staff.”

Newsies Using Twitter

Biz Stone, co-creater of Twitter, said more and more journalists seem to be using the site. “We have a few news organizations experimenting with Twitter. Skynews, BBC, and ESPN come to mind. Some are just re-purposing feeds and others are trying new things,” he said via e-mail. “Reporters and news agencies seem drawn to Twitter because of it’s immediacy — something notable happens and they just reach into their pocket and text about it. That text can be instantly distributed to hundreds or thousands of ‘followers’ … or it can be ‘protected’ and only shared with an editor or a small news team for the purpose of gathering data in the field.”  

The extent to which news organizations use Twitter varies, depending on the audience they are trying to reach and the content they hope to relay.

CNN, for instance, uses Twitter to post breaking news updates. A recent “CNN breaking news” post from Sept. 3 read: The National Hurricane Center says Hurricane Felix has made landfall in northeastern Nicaragua as a Category 5 storm.” CNN’s Twitter account has more than 3,500 followers.

The New York Times’ Twitter page, which has about 400 followers, gets updated sometimes several times an hour, using RSS feeds from the paper’s Web site. The paper recently posted a headline: “Hurricane Felix Strikes Central America” accompanied by a link to a related Times story.

So, what good is Twitter to journalists? I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which it helps journalists connect with audience members who seek new methods of obtaining news. As journalists, we thrive off of connections — connections to the communities we cover, to the stories we write and to others in the field who can help us develop our careers.

In many ways, Twitter presents the opportunity to establish some of these connections, perhaps not yet among journalists and their sources but among journalists looking for new and innovative ways to communicate with one another.

I’ve posted a discussion on Poynter’s Journalists and Facebook group to start some dialogue about Twitter. Click here to engage in it.

Coming next: I’ll address specific ways that news organizations are using Twitter and discuss its potential benefits and risks.

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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