Has Twitter grown up?

Friday 28 May 2010, 09:30

Matthew Eltringham Matthew Eltringham is editor of the BBC College of Journalism website. Twitter: @mattsays

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Claire Wardle identifies an important stage in the evolution of Twitter in her brief post 'Four quick examples of Twitter as news'.

She could have quoted 40 or even 400 examples of news being broken or made on Twitter. She could just as easily have included Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Twitter account, or @leicesterliz (aka Leicester MP Liz Kendall) for her Twitpic of the House of Lords after the Queen's Speech.

News 'happens' constantly on Twitter, which now almost routinely 'beats' most conventional mainstream media platforms - TV, radio or online - to the story.  

That is partly of course because many journalists or news-makers, such as Unite general secretary Derek Simpson or Foreign Secretary William Hague, use it to promote themselves or their stories.

But the real editorial value of Twitter lies in more than just providing another channel for hacks to sell their wares.

In the space of 12 months it has evolved from being a diverting sideshow that had questionable newsgathering value to become one of the most important sources of reliable, credible and rapid information on breaking stories almost anywhere in the world.

Sure, there is plenty of less serious stuff that finds its way to the top of trending topics - stuff like #didyoureallythink ... (finish the sentence in 140 characters of your choice). But the beauty of Twitter is that you can screen that out if your interest lies elsewhere.

Only 18 months ago Twitter played a controversial role in the reporting of the Mumbai terror attacks. The BBC News website's editor, Steve Herrmann, blogged about the experience when, infamously, Twitter circulated the false rumour that the Indian government had asked people to stop Tweeting about the military operation for fear of helping the gunmen.

The BBC's social newsgathering team, the UGC (User-Generated Content) Hub, found plenty of other speculation and repetition of what the BBC and other mainstream media were reporting, but almost nothing of any real value.

In total contrast, barely a year later, while there was still plenty of rumour and gossip, Twitter provided an absolutely essential gateway to reporting the Haiti earthquake.

Tweeters and the information they Tweeted proved reliable and, as the Web was the only means of communication that survived the disaster, crucial in sustaining coverage of the story until conventional journalism was able to mobilise 24 hours or more later.

Within a few hours of the earthquake, the UGC Hub sourced key - and unique - testimony from Tweeters in Haiti, like @carelpedre and @troylivesay. These two in particular used Twitter to report rapidly and accurately about the situation on the ground in the earthquake zone and became significant voices throughout the course of the story.

Ushahidi used Twitter to help build a crowdsourced map to direct the aid effort. Others were using Twitter to point journalists to sources of further information.

Why has this evolution, this maturity come about? Perhaps it is because mainstream media is engaging with it and taking both Twitter and Tweeters seriously. Perhaps it is because Tweeters have seen how influential they can be and are therefore recognising the power it gives them if they act appropriately.

Whatever the reason, it marks a significant step in the evolution of news and the developing relationship between news organisations and their audience.

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    Comment number 1.

    Interesting post. Just on your point about the mainstream media engaging with it seriously, I think it's worth mentioning that journalists' understanding of Twitter has improved significantly over the same time period.

    While Twitter undoubtedly has changed too, I would suggest that through a process of exploration and experience, journalists are far better at exploiting Twitter than they were 12 months ago.

    It is not as if you couldn't find relevant information on Twitter more than 12 months ago. I pulled up some eyewitness reporting of a bomb blast in Bangalore nearly two years ago. But then I had some time to experiment and explore that journalists wouldn't have had. And far less pressure if I got something wrong using what was then regarded as a highly dubious source of information. OK, it would have been embarrassing for me but I wouldn't have lost my job! (Hopefully).

    Of course, as a few journalists began turning up some interesting material on Twitter, then their colleagues/competitors began to catch on too. And it is partly because journalists began paying Twitter a lot of attention that people who wanted to influence the media began to use it. So the media paid even more attention...and the cycle begins again.

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    Comment number 2.

    thanks for your comment.

    You're absolutely right that journalists are far better at exploiting Twitter now than they were 12 months ago and that has helped build its credibility.

    As a result it has attracted those who seek to influence mainstream media - as we saw very clearly during the election. Thus one of the many strands of Twitter is a colonisation by mainstream media and its 'collaborators' in politics and PR.

    I wonder though - and as a journalist working in this field this is more exciting than virtual lobbying by the professionals - what this means for mainstream media's relationship with its audience of 'real people'?

    How will this growing credibility influence that relationship? How will the 'direct access' that the audience now has to tweeting correspondents affect their journalism? What editorial innovation will it drive now we know how significant it is?


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