Darren Waters

BBC News, Twitter and suits

  • Darren Waters
  • 5 Mar 09, 15:15 GMT

I'm taking part in a panel discussion on the role of Twitter in journalism at the DNA (Digital News Affairs) 09 conference.

I'm apprehensive, not least because of two tweets I stumbled across when searching for coverage of day one of the conference:

Paul Vereijken tweeted: "next year there should be more young people - less suits" while Bertiebee said: "If we didn't have Twitter, we would be bored to death."

So here I am dressed in a suit, decidedly middle-aged, and hoping I have something interesting to say about Twitter and journalism; at a time when many people are sick of hearing about Twitter on the BBC.

I'm also apprehensive because talking and thinking about how my colleagues and I do our jobs most often takes a back seat to just getting on with doing it. But in an effort to have something meaningful to say I have been ruminating on our use of Twitter.

A good place to start is my colleague Rory Cellan-Jones' excellent series of blog posts on the use of Twitter.

What I hope to add to that is a sense of how an organisation like the BBC begins to formulate the use of these technologies once take-up has started and generated a critical mass among staff.

It's clear that the adoption of Twitter inside the BBC began, much as it did with blogging, on the fringes.

If you think of the BBC as a circle, those of us who began using Twitter a few years ago were sat on the rim and as its popularity increased lines were drawn inevitably toward the centre.

Those of us who were early adopters made the rules up as we went along - for Rory and I Twitter has long been a personal technology that has overlapped with our professional lives.

Rory was chided by some when it was pointed out that he talks a lot about walking his dog. I talk a lot about rugby and my family.

But in the past 24 months it is clear that Twitter has become another tool or conduit in our reporting.

So how do we use it?

1.Talking to and responding to queries from readers, fellow professionals and colleagues.
2.Asking the audience questions and using the crowd as a source of information
3.Reporting updates, breaking news, and giving colour and texture
4.Pushing out headlines and blogposts to Twitter via RSS and
5.Getting a very fast and very global sense of events
6.Using hashtags to find viewpoints around breaking news as well as a source of user generated content
7.Unifying different threads of reporting - news website, blog, Flickr etc

This has been an evolving process and one that is a long way removed from the first time that empty box on Twitter asked me: What are you doing right now?

With any large organisation there is always a lag between take up of a new technology by staff in their own time and its adoption formally across all staff and structures.

The trick is, I think, to help the organisation understand the technology as those lines move to the centre so that when formal adoption is then pushed back out there is at least some connection between original use and 'sanctioned', structural use - for want of a better term.

So what else has the BBC learned about Twitter as it moved from the fringe to the centre?

One of the most popular engagements between Twitter and the BBC actually has little to do with us at all. Mario Menti is a web developer who has worked with the BBC's Backstage project, which aims to foster innovation using BBC content among external devs.

He built one of the first Twitter bots that pumps out headlines from the BBC News website's front page and many of our sub-sections, including Technology.

These are incredibly popular and showed the BBC more broadly how it could make use of the mountains of data within the BBC and connect it to Twitter.

One of my favourite more recent hook-ups is a Twitter bot which outputs the next programme to be aired on Radio 4.

In recent months there has been an explosion of Twitter activity from inside the BBC, and BBC News, although if I am honest, much of it remains uncoordinated.

We do not have a 'Twitter strategy' yet, which may not be a bad thing. Although we do have excellent people like Jem Stone, who helps us all to understand how to engage with social media.

A number of BBC Radio programmes now use Twitter as another channel of communication with the audience, alongside e-mails and text messages.

At the recent Davos economic conference a number of our journalists were Twittering alongside their other reporting and these Tweets were fed into a central BBC News at Davos Twitter stream.

BBC News' Entertainment team has started Twittering recently - adopting a more irreverent, side-on tone which hopefully resonates with their audience.

During breaking news events, BBC News is now incorporating viewpoints, eyewitness accounts and user generated content from users on Twitter into our developing coverage.

One of the biggest lessons I think we are beginning to learn from Twitter is in understanding the value of having a simple technology both to deliver and publish breaking news updates.

Twitter excels in its ubiquity and simplicity across different platforms and reveals the value in delivering real-time, sequential updates around breaking news.

For the BBC News website, it has given us much food for thought in the areas of reporting and publishing, particularly in terms of speed and scale.

There are technical and editorial challenges for us - BBC News does not allow direct publishing of news content by the source journalist without a second pair of eyes to check it over. We do this to ensure editorial standards.

So what does the future hold for BBC News and Twitter? That's not my decision but given the speed at which Twitter is growing it is clear that this is a mode of reporting and broadcasting that is here to stay. Facebook's recent announcement of real time updates also hints that there may be other similar dynamic platforms for us to engage with in the future.

For individual journalists who are grappling with issues such as workload, writing blogs, news stories, recording audio, shooting video and Twittering is a real juggling exercise.

Thankfully, at DNA today I will be "merely" blogging and Twittering. You can follow the event on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #dna09 and there are excellent updates on

As always, I'd appreciate your thoughts about Twitter, social media, the future of journalism, or of course suits!


  • Comment number 1.

    Crumbs.. Give everyone else a chance to catch up will you all? We don't get paid!

  • Comment number 2.

    I signed up to twitter

    Within one day I realised like much of the web it is meaningless drivel

    The internet is becoming the champion not of wonderful information, or of democracy or of anything noble

    It is becoming static that drowns out progression.

    It will see the stagnation of the human intellect, for as the few search for the progression of the human condition, they will be drowned out by the millions searching for some stupid software gadget that will separate them even further from anything remotely challenging.

    Twitter is the future, apparently.

    How depressing.

  • Comment number 3.

    oh, I knew Twitter reminded me of something and I have just remembered what it is!

    Has anyone read the book 21st Century Blues by Steve Walker?

    In it he invented Everyone TV, where everyone could watch everyone else on their TV.

    In the end it was 100 million channels of 100 million people sitting on sofas watching 100 million other people sitting on sofas.

    That is Twitter.

    So glad the BBC have decided to help promote it.

  • Comment number 4.

    The BBC does seem to be twittering on about twitter a lot recently.
    It seems if your a tech journo you need to be constantly talking about the iPhone, Kindle and Twitter.

    Twitter just bores me to death. Yes it may be useful for journalists, but it's not revolutionary. Twitter is a fad like MySpace. Anyone remember Geocities, Tripod and Fortune City? They were the forerunners of all this stuff. They were all sold for millions and are now hardly used by anyone.

    I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but this could be the dotcom bubble 2.0.

  • Comment number 5.

    This is rather amusing, yet similarly rather maddening - just like Twitter, really.

    Here is a line-up of self-appointed 'techies', neither of whom can claim any real scientific or technological qualifications, who are being paid, with license fee-payer's money, to inform us precisely how they waste our money.

    It would be rather like entering a bank as the recession looms, opening a new account while being shown precisely how reckless their city bankers are with their customers savings.

    Is this it, BBC? Is this the future of journalism? A bunch of tech-crazed fad-junkies huddled round their laptops at conferences, corresponding virtually with whatever social messaging fad seems the hippest? Does it not strike anyone reading this how utterly demoralising and dehumanising the notion of being presented with 'Twitter strategies' and 'social media experts' as valid journalistic strategies is?

    I feel a tremendous, almost unresolvable schism in these times. On one side, are people who would gladly see online social messaging replace virtually every form of human interaction possible, as long as it shaves off a few seconds of valuable time or effort. On the other, are the people who either don't understand or simply don't care about this new form of technology, who just want to sit back and enjoy real life and real human company - and it is this group who will be beaten into submission and compliance with modern social messaging.

    I fear that it is the irresponsibility of modern professionals such as these savvy journalists who will usher in a new age whereby adherence to such forms of correspondance shall eventually become completely mandatory - in the workplace, for general official usage, and God forbid it, to simply speak to your friends and neighbours.

  • Comment number 6.

    Any chance you could shut up about Twitter, and start to do some journalism for a change? For example, a half-decent investigation into Phorm and BT, or are you scared you might upset someone?

  • Comment number 7.

    Sorry, do the technology blog team work in journalism for the BBC or advertising for Twitter?

    Seriously, it's embarrassing to read.

    I /did/ give Twitter a go. I wrote one update, then was totally unsure what to do afterwards. End of test. Now can we talk about something else?

  • Comment number 8.

    Actually, it's worse than I make out. You're peddling the same opinion (note, not "story" or "news") again and again - that Twitter is a journalism tool. We get that you believe that. Thanks for pointing it out. Repeatedly.

  • Comment number 9.

    Interesting article about social networking, i think Facebook and twitter are very good at what they do but are trying to diversify too much
    A new service called myhandle has been launched that seems to combat the issue of grouping "Personal" "work" "friday night drinking buddies" and let you control where you recieve communication from certain groups of people. I certainly like the fact i can control how i am contacted which other sites seem to have missed. This really does work and i think will be the next big thing.
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 10.

    there are a lot of social "Blog" tools out there, they all do a job but dont give you any control over what you recieve and where.
    Look at new sites such as myhandle.
    This at least doesnt boss what you can and cant do, create a handle and its yours for life, invite everyone you know and then YOU dictate who contacts you and where...... its a breath of fresh air for communication and for once not just another blog or online address book.

  • Comment number 11.


    It's *really* nuts to complain that Twitter is just full of "mindless drivel".

    Twitter is a medium, not content.

    Content is provided by human beings, not the medium itself.

    Hence, if you're reading drivel it's because you're talking to the wrong people. If you were at a party listening to a bunch of people stood around together and the conversation was rubbish, you'd drift away quietly and find some more interesting people to talk to.

    This is like complaining that it's the fault of "the telephone" that people ring you up and try and sell you double-glazing. Or putting your foot through the TV because you're watching a rubbish programme on a crappy channel.

    Twitter is an extremely powerful tool that enables conversations between lots of people simultaneously. That's all. If you're finding it tedious, follow some different tweeple.

  • Comment number 12.

    I don't quite think you understand, pilchardboy. It is not the content of Twitter that anyone here is complaining about. It is in fact the excessive coverage of this 'medium', as you put it, by the BBC's technology blog that is being complained about. We are all sick and tired of the BBC's latest love affair with this new technology, and how they feel that it is good journalism to laud its features and its relevance at the heart of the industry at every possible turn.

    Sure, if we find it tedious, we can just ignore this blog and look elsewhere. But then, that would be ignoring this dumbing-down of the traditional quality of BBC journalism and media, as well as the implications this has for the people who read it, and who pay for the privilege of the BBC with real money. Which I think is fairly irresponsible.

  • Comment number 13.

    pilchardboy: Twitter is no more a medium than BMW is a method of transport. It's just one particular brand of "micro blogging", and offers not a lot to the average user. I'm a self confessed geek, I work a a software dev, and yet I just can't get excited about Twitter. I've seen it all before. This is a technology blog, yet it has recently been a Twitter blog, and before that a Facebook blog. The news today that Microsoft is adding an option to remove Internet Explorer from Windows 7, or that Al Gore wants a new .eco domain havn't been mentioned. But I'm sure the new search box on Twitter will !

  • Comment number 14.

    This blog is now the equivalent of your dad dancing at a wedding - just highly embarrassing watching an older man trying to be hip.

  • Comment number 15.

    What startles me here, is the notion that the BBC is losing its famed, and surely necessary, impartiality. And I'll tell you why.

    You see, conventional social discussion mediums such as email and SMS (used by the BBC, in this case, for the acquisition of public opinion on TV and radio channels, read out by presenters) are all regulated by international internet or phone network standards, none of which is protected or owned by a particular trademark or brand name - at least not one the BBC ever endorses. You can SMS a BBC TV or radio station with your opinions in numerous different ways, as you can also email from any domain or webmail package out there. It is transparent, free and bereft of any endorsement or brand advertising.

    But Twitter is different. Twitter isn't a standard or a protocol, it's not regulated by any government or any international internet organisation. It's a brand name. A trademark. A business. It is self-regulating and self-managing. And for the BBC to chime out messages, from the public writing on Twitter, to their audience via TV or radio, they are endorsing Twitter - simply by mentioning it to this audience.

    Assuming social media, like Twitter and Facebook (which are both free to use), gain money, investibility and external advertising revenue from having an increased userbase, and assuming that the BBC asking its audiences to twitter to them for their opinions to be read out on TV or radio achieves an increase in the Twitter userbase, Twitter is therefore, arguably, acquiring funds via the BBC's public efforts. And not in the anonymous way that SMS's sent to the BBC might fund phone networks - after all, any phone network in the world will do, and SMS's can even be sent for free. Twitter and the BBC are now starting to enter a blatant and synergistic relationship of increasing popularity and of course, profitability.

    I must confess that I often look with suspicion over this. As demonstrated verbosely by the blogger on this page, with Twitter installing itself into the heart of modern digital journalism, aiding the BBC no end, is this attempt by the BBC to ferment Twitter into the hands of the public an attempt to safeguard the somewhat uncertain future of Twitter?

    Furthermore, can anybody tell me, with complete honesty, that this all appears totally impartial?

  • Comment number 16.

    First will peeps stop wittering on about impartiality... The BBC in News is required by the government to be accurate and balanced and to curiously be supportive of democracy. (see the BBC Trust Pages for the Charter and the Governments memorandum.)
    Second any media organisation needs to 'keep up' with media developments and exploit them to to fullfill its mission. Media users are of course free to take then or leave them.
    My two suggestion is that if News wants to publish edited tweets they should be clearly labeled and on a page (or red button) linked to from the story with a health warning. Stories which are partly based on tweets need to be subbed (or whatever you do in audio and TV) with the old cliches to indicate that they are 'unconfirmed' etc and later should be reported as confirmed or not ''' earlier reports were not confirmed". Somewhere they should be a glossary to explain what these cliches mean. The BBC should avoid Sky chasing here.
    Ad's and PR on these media by the BBC should however edgy should conform to an agreed code of practice.
    As and old fogy I advise developing a wardrobe to allow enough choice for modern pubic life which would involve a call in Top Shop as well. as M&S after checking in Harvey Nicks. Power dressing is only for when you need it.

  • Comment number 17.

    It is interesting watching old media journalism merge into the world of the blogger and the social media information soup. Even vice versa in many cases. It's a shame that it's assumed that 'the young' should always dominate new communication platforms. If you're a communicator then you should be able to adapt to almost any new medium if you can find advantages to using it and information consumers (stop me I'm descending into marketing speak) can appreciate the value to them in using it also.

    I understand the comment criticisms re Twitter and what is seen by some as non impartial publicity for a commercial service though taking that line presumably means we better not highlight technology services by Microsoft and Apple even if they represent what a majority of people are actually using.
    Like it or not Twitter is currently where the numbers are in terms of diverse professional users and the so called ordinary public (many of whom are experiencing quite mundane lives, sorry if that's unpalatable) are interacting.
    If you're a broadcaster and communicator such as the BBC you're going to want to use it rather than ignore it.
    Presumably the critics were prefer the Beeb to point out that other microblogging services are available (which would then require that Twitter content is duplicated and responded to across all alternatives).Or we can just pretend that old media should never adapt to new challenges in a changing world and steadfastly refuse to embrace the corrupting influence of all new media much of which could well be offered by commercial entities. Facing up to change is not for the faint hearted.

  • Comment number 18.

    Are we talking about Twitter too much? Well, I've read your comments. Message received.

    One small point.

    Feel free to do a Google site search and see how many times Twitter has been mentioned in the Guardian, NYTimes, Times Online and BBC News.

    To save you the trouble: 1,700, 9,800, 4,100 and 450.

    Read into that what you will.

  • Comment number 19.

    Two non-journalistic uses of Twitter:

    1. You have an elderly (but web-savvy) relative living some distance away from you on their own. You know that what they value is precisely the kind of ' I am just going down to the shops to get a packet of sugar' message that so many of the superior, 'get a life' anti-Twitters scoff at and that you would not dream of sending to friends of your own age. So you help that relative to get a Twitter account and make their lives just a little better by tweeting them now and again.
    2. You are a teacher who is keen on using technology in the classroom. Most of the teachers you work with have no interest and it is not always easy to remain motivated. You use 'Search' in a program like Tweetdeck to locate other teachers who share your interest. You follow them and click on the links to interesting websites they post. As a result, you are better able to incorporate new technologies into your teaching and are able to maintain your enthusiasm.

    A reasonable and reasoned assessment of Twitter comes from putting yourself into other people's shoes.

  • Comment number 20.

    I cannot believe the general tone of these comments, they seem to be written by the tiny minority out there who seem to believe that being technologically unaware (incompetent) somehow makes you a cut above the rest of us.

    I can only assume that these luddites complained when the BBC started to use email or SMS to communicate with it's audience, two other technologies which were clearly doomed to failure.

    Actually, I am reminded of one of my favorite technology quotes (although I have long since forgotten the source)...

    "The motor car will never take over from the horse drawn carriage, it is simply impossible to train more than 100 chauffeurs per year"

    Get with it, technology is a moving target, even if Twitter wanes, micro-blogging is most likely here to stay as just part of the way that people communicate with each other and collect information from, yes even the BBC!

  • Comment number 21.

    #18 Darren Waters

    "Are we talking about Twitter too much?

    ... Feel free to do a Google site search and see how many times Twitter has been mentioned in the Guardian, NYTimes, Times Online and BBC News.

    To save you the trouble: 1,700, 9,800, 4,100 and 450."


    I have been in advertising for 30 years, and am very well aware that ONE mention on the BBC in the UK is worth a hundred mentions anywhere else - that is why I recommend that companies press release to the Beeb above any one else.

    For people in the industry, getting you guys to buy into something is worth its weight in gold.

    #20 - nigelb135

    No, we are not ludites.

    We are people who understand that the technology industry is driven by shareholders needs not consumer needs.

    And the best way of supporting that kind of industry is through the following strategy:

    1. Develop a product possibility based on capability.

    2. Identify if there is a consumer need.

    3. If not, then create a consumer need by challenging the status quo and getting a pile of gullible journalists on board

    4. Launch product to fulfil non-existent need.

    And just in case you think this is me being sarcastic, this was exactly how things like a certain premium coffee was developed and launched.

    The company created a premium product on paper. Identified that it targeted a market between instant coffee drinkers and fresh coffee drinkers but that didn't actually exist.

    They then spend several years in research with focus groups to work out how they could create the target market.

    Having worked that out, they then, and only then, actually created the product.

    In the case of communication, the market idea they have created is that ALL information is only of value if you can pass it on then and there. In other words, if you wait untill you meet with the person who you want to tell something to, then you have lost the initiative - worse still, you will forget the message.

    Of course, 99% of communications could easily wait hours, if not weeks, so this situation is completely artificial and created by the ad men.

    Still thousands of people fall for it. Clever, huh?

  • Comment number 22.

    That is a good point Darren made about NYT and The Guardian and The Times. I don't read the NYT, but I do occasionally read The Times, and more often The Guadian - and it it does annoy me how they make these claims about Twitter and Facebook changing the world. Maybe for a year or two, but I doubt we'll be using Twitter in 5 years time as much as we do today. Maybe I'll be wrong, who knows?

    Email and the Web got this kind of attention (I remember seeing a web browser on Tomorrow's World!), but I don't remember instant messaging or VoIP getting a lot of coverage when it was new.

    Yes the BBC and it's excellent team of reporters will always give us news on the latest tech and what we can expect to come, I guess I have come to expect the BBC to be a bit more varied.

  • Comment number 23.

    One could argue that a service such as Twitter is essential for the expansion of modern journalism, and the ruthless competitiveness this implies. Were modern journalism to operate under the sole mediums of correspondance as in the 1970's - the telephone and letters - it would totally grind to a halt. Is this just evolution?

    First we must ask. Is this sheer, unprecedented speed a good thing? News has to be delivered swiftly - and Twitter has shown itself incredibly capable in providing news updates as quickly as a bogged down reporter can twiddle his thumbs on a smartphone. Yet surely, there is a limit to the amount of news that is worthy of coverage. Will Twitter create a precedent that allows absolutely anyone to rifle through the most trivial of details as if they were worthy of mention? Will this perhaps create a significant amount of irrelevance, speculation and, plainly, bad journalism?

    Secondly, I ask; is Twitter prone to misinformation? Journalists, including the ones on this blog, have shown themselves as people to take even anonymous reporters to their word on Twitter - and this could well create a very dangerous precedent indeed. With the potential for immaterialism that I mentioned above, combined with misinterpreting journalists and gullible reporters, will Twitter start weaving fairytales into the heart of once honest, impartial journalism? Will the British public tune into a world of plain fiction they can neither perceive nor even keep up with?

    And finally, what implications does a service as intense, as verbose and as swift as Twitter have for all of us, professionals or social beings? The idea of Twitter is that it simplifies communication, and speeds it us enormously - in its eyes, creating less time for inane chatter and more time for living. Realistically, however, this is simply not true. As addictive as it appears to be, it simply persuades more and more of us to ceremoniously arch our backs and glare at our computer screens, for ever longer periods of time. The professional world will change, too - no longer shall it be enough to keep in touch with what is going on in the workplace both physically and verbally - we'll have to know exactly what the status quo is in the labyrinthic maze of corporate, Tweeted drivel, every second of its inanity.

    The masses will demand we divulge the absolutes of our thoughts and experiences - from the soggy cereal we waded through for breakfast, to the dogs that we walk once we get home from work. We will no longer have time for constructive intellectual debates - masterpieces of the human mind will never find their fruition with our attention totally on the trivial.

    Our world is getting faster. And to accommodate, our minds must get smaller. This is not evolution. It never will be.

  • Comment number 24.

    Re 15 - 07 Mar 2009, synthil wrote (re Twitter)

    "It's a brand name. A trademark. A business."

    I'd say exactly the same for Google. Lots of times a BBC presenter on radio will suggest someone "Googles for 'subject'" when "search" would be a perfectly adequate expression.

    Some may counter that it has gone into the dictionary so that makes it legitimate, but one should ask *why* did it get into the dictionary (I don't know which one, just a 'fact' on some radio item)

    It seems Google has the highest share of seaches in the UK, a coincidence, perhaps, but it was a bit of a surprise to me to see that it was higher than in the USA and Canada.

    FWIW, I use MetaCrawler which calls in results from 4 or more search engines, but doesn't have a "UK pages only" option. Incidentally, does no-one at Yahoo or Google consider that should be the 'default' for viewers from the UK, for whom they display the UK version... seems a clear choice to me, if they're showing it on the page, it should be the default, as many searchers will want a 'local' result.


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