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Twitter proves its worth

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:12 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

It's long been derided as a vehicle for the vacuous, and a web fad which will fade away as soon as its backers realise it has no realistic business plan.

Wikileaks page on Twitter


But over the weekend, Twitter proved its worth again - in two ways. First, as the place to be if you want to catch the latest news and the background to it. Second, in the eyes of web libertarians, as a doughty defender of its users' rights.

As the first reports emerged of the shootings in Tucson came in on Saturday, my Twitter stream began to fill up with the latest developments. As the minutes passed, the picture became more confused then clearer - at first it seemed Congresswoman Giffords had died, then it emerged that she was in surgery, and then details came through of the victims, and the man who had apparently fired the gun.

When I remarked - on Twitter - how useful a place it had been to watch the news, some immediately responded that it had been full of inaccuracies and that rolling TV news had been a better place to watch. True, you needed to have the television on as well, but it was just as guilty of running with lines that turned out later to be false. The faster the news cycle has become, on television and then online, the more we are likely to hear half-truths and untruths before the clear picture emerges - "never wrong for long", as some have put it.

The other criticism of Twitter, that in 140 characters you just cannot say anything important, really does not hold up. Because it's the links to other web addresses - shortened by services like - which are the website's most powerful tool. Within minutes, you could see America debating the causes of the incident - the liberal left posting links to Sarah Palin's "crosshairs" message, showing Gabrielle Giffords being "targeted" during the mid-term elections, the right responding with links to similarly inflammatory messages from Democrats.

Tweeters were also rapidly providing information about the background of the alleged shooter, with links to his bizarre YouTube videos and even grabs of a MySpace page before that was taken down. You can still argue that the television is still the best place to watch live news unfold - but you needed Twitter to get background and the arguments.

The other big story of the weekend concerned Twitter itself as it emerged that the social network had been served with a court order from the US government demanding that it hand over all sorts of details about the accounts and online activities of people connected to Wikileaks. That sounded like a huge crisis for Twitter, in the unenviable position of having to choose between obeying the law and losing its reputation overseas as a forum for free expression in countries like Iran.

Twitter's response - its lawyers fought successfully to get the order unsealed so that its contents could be made public - has turned that crisis into an opportunity. Suddenly, web libertarians are rushing to Twitter's side, and applauding it as a defender of its users' rights. And they are asking what rival companies would have done in the same circumstances - indeed whether the likes of Facebook and Google are currently wrestling with a similar dilemma.

Twitter may still be forced to hand over that information to the US authorities, but it will emerge with its reputation enhanced. All it needs now is a convincing business plan.


  • Comment number 1.

    "As the minutes passed, the picture became more confused then clearer - at first it seemed Congresswoman Giffords had died, then it emerged that she was in surgery, and then details came through of the victims, and the man who had apparently fired the gun."

    And there's one of the problems: a lie can be half way round the world before the truth has got its boot on to paraphrase Terry Pratchett. There's no vetting, it's all shoot from the hip stuff so anything goes.

    I think that Twitter has its place as a news aggregator for journalists as long as they then filter the incoming streams to ensure they have a factual view of what's going on. Otherwise it's just gossip.

    "All it needs now is a convincing business plan."

    And that's the other problem.

  • Comment number 2.

    Before I gave up on Twitter 9 months ago, one of my favourite past times was watching the false news feeds.

    "R.I.P Jonnny Depp" was a particular favourite. I think it trended in at #9.

    Subsequently death of Gary Coleman then didn't get believed until the TV news reported it.

  • Comment number 3.

    @ #1, Mark_MWFC: "There's no vetting, it's all shoot from the hip stuff so anything goes." Also appears to be true of live TV reporting - in fact it's hard to see how it could be otherwise.

    First rule of thumb on hearing news from just about ANY news feed: Check the source. :-)

  • Comment number 4.

    It's another tool - like all information, regardless of how it is delivered, it should be checked and confirmed.

    UK users will no doubt be aware of newspaper apologies for blatant lies printed - a national newspaper told it;s readers Coronation St studio/set was going to be attacked by terrorists during a live episode. Recently they had to apologise and admit the story was made up.

    TV, well that's just as bad for inaccurate stories - again resulting in apologies.

    Twitter is often the first with breaking news...... but, reader beware, check the information from multiple sources.

  • Comment number 5.

    I was once a Twitter sceptic, but succumbed last year, and have gradually come to see its value as a source for both news and entertainment.

    I think there's an interesting comparison to be drawn with Wikipedia - yes, accuracy will always be an issue, but nonetheless it's a good starting point which can lead to more reputable sources.

    As noted above, confirming with other sources is becoming increasingly important online

  • Comment number 6.

    I don't agree that links off of tweets to other web apps/sites are a strength of Twitter. That's just something the web inherently has.

    If you have to link to elsewhere to get your message across, Twitter's 140 character limit on tweets is failing, as who's to say your followers will actually click the link?

    And you don't need Twitter to find background information - you need Google! I'll bet that's how the tweeters got their info on the shooter etc.

    All Twitter does well is share information quickly (not quite real-time as there's no way to notify every single user at once) in a generally peer-to-peer fashion. Someone tweets some information, some of their followers see it and retweet, some of their followers see it and retweet etc.

  • Comment number 7.

    Twitter is for brain dead morons. Sorry

  • Comment number 8.

    I very often see news first on Twitter, I then check anything important on the BBC. Online news is usually way behind Twitter, perhaps *because* of the checking that has to be done by responsible journalists?

  • Comment number 9.

    "And there's one of the problems: a lie can be half way round the world before the truth has got its boot on to paraphrase Terry Pratchett."

    Just don't think that problem is unique to Twitter! Reuters News posted their own stories about Giffords' death, too. It is a problem with the Internet, and underscores the vital role editors play in slowing down and verifying the news.

  • Comment number 10.

    I disagree with many of the answers above. It wasn't the average citizens who were feeding incorrect information, it was the pros at news brands that we all love and trust. I watch a list of them at and there were tons of "she's dead" vs. "she's alive" and then later "she's talking" and then "no she's not." Of course people retweeted these things, but it was the pros who did a horrible job of getting the real information to start with. They caused a lot of the weird rumors to be shoved through the system.

    Look at that Twitter list, it ONLY includes professional news brands. No independent folks. Twitter is the best place to watch all the journalists and the brands they work for. By the way, I found this BBC report on that list.

  • Comment number 11.


    And perhaps that's the problem. When I was younger the news didn't have to be instant, it just had to be right.

    To be honest, does it enrich my life to know about the attempted assassination of a government official the second it happens especially when that detail is, frankly, made up and unverified more than waiting an hour or three and getting a factual picture through AP or Reuters or something like that? I don't think it does.

    Twitter is noise pure and simple and until we start getting verified feeds it remains gossip at best and slander at worst.

  • Comment number 12.

    "All it needs now is a convincing business plan."

    Now that's a plan!

  • Comment number 13.

    No, it's not Twitter, the Internet, or TV that's at fault here: it's the morons who, in their overwhelming rush/need to be somehow "first" (as if it really matters) to break the "news", post before checking facts, or without thinking.

    Ironically, as technology gets ever more sophisticated, we as a society seem to be slipping back into a medieval world view, where every rumour was believed as if it was absolute truth. How long before we start burning people at the stake again, because half the world says they're a witch? Indeed, have we actually changed? Perhaps the idea we were more sophisticated and intelligent than our ancestors was just a fallacy after all?

    All this instant communication has done is allow the mask of civilisation to slip. I no longer believe anything I haven't seen with my own eyes.

  • Comment number 14.

    @ Rory Cellan-Jones said:
    "It's long been derided as a vehicle for the vacuous, and a web fad which will fade away as soon as its backers realise it has no realistic business plan."
    And " You can also follow me on Twitter: @BBCRoryCJ

    More than thirty years ago, a massive cocktail party style conversation began. It was conducted electronically, using keyboards and screens instead of voices, but it was essentially a very large converstion between what were, when it began, mostly academics and students. Like any party, it fragmented into several bunches, groups, all talking about their favourite subject. Some people joined in many of these little conversational groups, some just stayed with one, some even created their own sub-groups and started new conversations.
    This massive cocktail party in the ether was called "Usenet". The groups were give names like "sci.astro" (the ongoing conversation about Astronomy in the Science group) and "rec.arts.poetry" - a recreational, art-based conversation about poetry.
    Many post in the groups were made in reply to others, thus making "threeads" within the converstaions which could die off, split into many other threads or continue for years. Many, many threads and messages were off-topic, some were funny, some were arguments between contributers and some were just weird.
    Have patience, please, I'm getting there.
    Because Usenet was slightly difficult to access, it remained polite and the conversations were usually helpful and of a high quality. This didn't last forever. Email and Usenet access programs got easier to use, Usenet got easier to access and the result was, as anyone would expect, The Tragedy of the Commons.
    "Twitter" is merely Usenet without the division into clearly defined groups, without the venerable history, without the help-files, FAQs, helpful denizens and ability to post long, rambling messages like this one. Twitter is, to use an Americanism, Usenet-lite.
    It is Usenet that is easy to use. Usenet for the completely non-technological.
    That is *NOT* a bad thing. Twitter is short conversations in a gigantic public house, a bar-room chattering. That's not a bad thing, people who don't care about the difference between Usenet and IRC-chats have as much of a right to have conversations with people in foreign parts as those who do.
    Twitter probably did not break the news. It was probably already in Usenet, in the News and local and politics groups, possibly in others. Twitter might have been the first place the Twitterati saw the news, but there are *many* other channels currently running. Twitter is one of the smaller, less useful ones. And, no, Usenet is not the best source of breaking news either. There are better.
    As others have said above, speed is not the most important factor in spreading information. Accuracy is more useful.
    Twitter, like Usenet, can do speed or accuracy but not usually both at the same time.
    The regularly scheduled BBC One News programmes are more reliable for accuracy, sometimes, though even those are tainted by the need for speed at times.
    Twitter is just another tool, another way for people to talk to each other. Anyone creating a new way for people to talk together will usually make money.
    Whether Twitter can is down to its own individual management team, but Usenet does.
    And mobile phones make *lots*.
    Twitter could be very useful for some people on some occasions, and it seems to be fun for most users, but it's very little more than an adjunct to things like Usenet and IRC.
    That the BBC promotes Twitter to the exclusion of every other mode of electronic communications isn't very surprising. Twitter is perfectly suited to reporters - it is short, text-based and simple to use without a great deal of training or setting up.
    That's no insult. Reporters, journalists, commentators *need* tools that give them quick access to information in small chunks. It is *then* that they do the job they are supposed to be good at: collating the feeds, sifting out the truths and presenting a coherent story formed from the mess.
    That is something that can be done on the Web or in Usenet groups, but isn't easily done in Twitter.
    Twitter is good for shouting "Lookee!".
    It's not very good for discussing scientific papers.
    It's also not the most important communications channel around. Perhaps Mr. Cellan-Jones should try a few others. You might like them and find them more useful than just using Twitter.

  • Comment number 15.

    It's also useful as a tool to gain an insight into the mindsets of those who are in theory (meant to be) objective but can be shown often to be anything but.

    Ask Helen Boaden. Now the facts from Tuscon are emerging, she'll be putting extra xx's on her staff emails soon.

    And they really can have an impact.

  • Comment number 16.

    I can see the attraction of Twitter as something fun, but can't see it being better than anything else on the web for gaining news accurately and quickely. Many opther websites reported all this over the weekend just as fast and accurately/innacurately.
    To be honest I have better things to do than sit watching a twitter feed anyway.
    So really Rory, I have to say, what a blatent plug from you there. Are you being paid by Twitter?

  • Comment number 17.

    #11, Mark_MWFC: "To be honest, does it enrich my life to know about the attempted assassination of a government official the second it happens especially when that detail is, frankly, made up and unverified more than waiting an hour or three and getting a factual picture through AP or Reuters or something like that? I don't think it does."

    Well said.

  • Comment number 18.

    The good thing about Twitter is that it provides a simple way to get notified about things you may be interested in, in one place. Yes there are other ways this can be done, but few of them give the same level of simplicity.
    Including links in messages shouldn't be to get your point across but to point to more information about the notification which the user can read if they are interested.
    It's really not about getting a message across first, in my view, but aggregating things which may be of interest which you can check for in one place - and with SMS you don't need to do anything as it delivers it direct to your phone. This, for some, is better than having to check a whole slew of web pages regularly - people can get on with their life and only need to look at web pages when something of interest comes along.

  • Comment number 19.

    I see all that, and raise you saving a young boy's life:

    Prompted by Ed Byrne retweeting a meningitis awareness raising blog, a second opinion was sought and an ambulance called.

    The faster someone is treated for meningitis, the less likely they are to die, or end up with life changing after effects.

  • Comment number 20.

    On the subject of alternative news sources, I wonder whether you're aware of electronic-only challengers in the news industry in Scotland? There are a number of online-only newspapers emerging, due to dissatisfaction with the existing media.
    These include the Caledonian Mercury (fairly balanced politically, with something of a magazine style), another publication I can't name because of the profanity filter, although it contains no dubious words (strongly pro-independence editorially, but they "encourage Scots of all political persuasions to contribute articles") and ForArgyll (a local newspaper for Argyll and Bute that manages an impressive frequency and detail of reporting).
    Reportedly, readership of these emerging online-only newspapers is starting to bear comparison with the printed media; it would be interesting to read an analysis of how significant these changes really are.
    The publication I can't name is probably banned because of zealous supporters providing over-frequent references to it, but I think it bears examination in this context anyway.

  • Comment number 21.

    Twitter is here to stay people. They say that you use Facebook to connect with the friends you actually have, and Twitter to connect to the friends you wish you had. It is now permeating all parts of society, the most recent example hitting the news being footballers using it for all the wrong reasons as this blog amusingly points out:

  • Comment number 22.

    "a lie can be half way round the world before the truth has got its boot on"

    It reminds me of when the BBC reported that WTC7 had fallen even though it could be clearly seen in the background, behind the reporter.

  • Comment number 23.

    @ CloudyJohn
    Superb sir, if only more did not discard "Dated" technologies.

    As an aside, why is there no login button at the bottom of the comments, for those who bothered to read if what they thought had been said.


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