After seven years with Twitter as a part of the social-media ecosystem, we’ve become pretty accustomed by now to the idea that the service functions as a real-time news platform — a cross between a social network and a news-wire staffed by millions of volunteer journalists, reporting on everything from a revolution in Egypt to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Was there a turning point when Twitter stopped being just a plaything for nerds and started becoming a journalistic entity? Co-founder Jack Dorsey says there was: the day an airplane crash-landed in the middle of the Hudson river in 2009.
Dorsey, who famously sketched out the idea for Twitter in 2000, talked to CNBC as part of the network’s recent documentary entitled “The Twitter Revolution,” and described it as the moment when the world started looking at the service as a potential news source rather than just a tech startup with a funny name. “It just changed everything,” he said. “Suddenly the world turned its attention (to us), because we were the source of news — but it wasn’t us, it was this person in the boat, using the service, which was even more amazing.” You can hear more from Dorsey about creating the experience of Twitter at our RoadMap conference in November in San Francisco.
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A sea change in the way the news works
Those comments from Dorsey resonated with me personally, because the landing of US Airways Flight 1549 was definitely a turning point in the way that Twitter was perceived by the traditional newspaper journalists I was working with at the time. Some of us had already begun to see the service as a powerful way of connecting with readers around our work, but few had seen the potential for Twitter to become an actual source of news — a way for the “sources to go direct,” as blogging pioneer Dave Winer has put it.
Even before the Hudson landing, there had already been a few incidents where Twitter had shown a glimpse of that potential: a rash of fires in California, an earthquake in China, and so on. But for whatever reason, the airplane rescue captured the imagination of many more people — journalists and otherwise — perhaps in part because it was such a miraculous event. And the photographer who took the iconic photo, Janis Krums, inadvertently became the prototype of the Twitter-enabled “citizen journalist.”
Over the next two years, Twitter became a larger and larger force not just in the delivery of traditional news but the actual creation of news — in the sense of those “random acts of journalism” that Andy Carvin of National Public Radio has talked about, like the one in which a computer programmer in Pakistan live-tweeted the U.S. special forces attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound. And by 2011, Carvin would be using Twitter as a crowdsourced real-time newsroom to report on the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere (he has given the Smithsonian the iPhone that he used to do a lot of his Twitter curation).
A megaphone for the world to use
To reinforce that point, in another clip from the CNBC special, Bahraini activist Maryam Al-Khawaja talks about how Twitter has changed the way that dissidents in her country and elsewhere in the Arab world get their message out and connect with others who can help them or who are fighting similar battles:
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The CNBC documentary has other segments as well, including one that follows Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to the gym for his workout, and a look at how social media affected the environment around a high-profile rape case in Torrington, Conn. — but for me, the comments from Jack Dorsey about Twitter’s role in the media just reinforced how far we have come in such a short time.
In many ways, the transformation that was triggered by that photo of Flight 1549 is still underway. Twitter is struggling to figure out what that means for it as a company, and also how it will deal with the conflicts between its own interests in doing business around the world and the restrictions that some countries want to place on the freedom of speech that it allows. But there is no question that, for better or worse, it has changed the way the news works forever.