Blog Post

Like It or Not, Twitter Has Become a News Platform

There’s been plenty of debate lately about whether Twitter has become “mainstream” or not, but examples continue to pile up of how the social network/microblogging platform has worked its way into our lives, to the point where it has become a form of media unto itself. Whether it will ever become mainstream in the sense that it gets used by your aunt or grandmother is almost irrelevant — the reality is that, for all its flaws, Twitter is a publishing tool, and an increasingly powerful one. And it can be used by anyone, journalist and non-journalist alike.

One of the most recent examples came several days ago, when a Japanese journalist who was kidnapped in Afghanistan managed to trick his captors into letting him post a message about his location to Twitter. It’s not clear from the news reports whether his tweets helped get him released or not, but it is yet another example of how easy Twitter makes it to broadcast that kind of news — and not just to one or two people, the way email or text messaging does, but to potentially hundreds or even thousands (in 2008, Twitter helped American photojournalist James Buck spread the news that he had been arrested by Egyptian police while covering an anti-government protest).

Two other examples of Twitter as a news platform are the recent hostage-taking and shootout at Discovery Channel headquarters in Maryland, and the earthquake that hit near New Zealand last week. In the first case, reports about a gunman in the Discovery building started coming in before the news was on a mainstream news outlet. And in the case of the earthquake — as in similar cases involving earthquakes in China and forest fires in California — reports flooded the Twitter network while most mainstream media outlets were still unaware that it had even occurred. One resident said she relied on news she got from Twitter more than the radio, because it was a lot faster (although it should be noted that she is a Twitter fan and web consultant).

Obviously, Twitter reports aren’t going to contain a complete accounting of an event like an earthquake or a shooting, but it has become just as obvious that they can be a powerful tool for “man on the street” or eyewitness accounts, whether it’s the fires in California or a plane landing in the middle of the Hudson River. In the case of the Discovery Channel situation, reporters described how useful this was because it acted as “an early alert system” on what was happening. In fact, earlier this year researchers looked at the flow of content on the network and found that Twitter is far more of a news medium than it is a traditional social network.

Since the protests in Iran last year, there has been a lot of debate about how important Twitter was during those demonstrations, and whether it was actually used by dissidents or merely by sympathizers in the West. But there’s no question that it helped spread the news of events such as the shooting death of protester Neda Soltan — which many saw as a key moment in the protests — and that it was important enough that the Obama government contacted the company to ask that it delay scheduled maintenance on the network while the protests were going on. The network has been used in a similar way in protests in Burma and elsewhere.

The thread that ties all of these events together is simple: Twitter, like blogging did before it, puts the tools of publishing in anyone’s hands. And yes, that means the information flowing through the network is not always accurate — hoaxes are a routine part of the stream — but it also means that there are thousands more eyeballs and brains studying those reports than there would be at any mainstream media outlet. The bottom line is one that journalism professor Jay Rosen reiterated during a recent address to journalism students in Paris: the “people formerly known as the audience” have the tools to become part of the media now, and that is changing our society in ways that we are only beginning to appreciate.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): What We Can Learn From the Guardian’s Open Platform

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Waldo Jaquith and George Kelly

29 Responses to “Like It or Not, Twitter Has Become a News Platform”

  1. Well, in terms of becoming a “mainstream” staple where it becomes an easy program to use for the masses where they can comprehend how to navigate it, make it useful and effective for them, etc.—I don’t think that day will ever come. Facebook has gone mainstream in that way, but not Twitter.

    However, if we’re talking about “mainstream” where Twitter is in the psyche of social consciousness and a part of the general media culture, then yes, Twitter has been mainstream for some time now.

  2. Aside from “live from the scene,” though, Twitter has the same journalistic reality as the headline ticker on Time Square. In the ’60s, they started complaining about superficial TV news when the audio clips were about 30 seconds. Now they’re around 8 seconds. Seriously, aside from being “first,” Twitter is a journalistic joke.

  3. When I’m busy and want to see the cricket wickets, I just watch the twitter UK trends and look out for the names in the feeds. I’ve found it very useful to catch the news usually about 10 minutes before it breaks. As others have said you need to check the sources carefully, but once you are sure of the source, the reliability of accuracy is excellent.

  4. “Obviously, Twitter reports aren’t going to contain a complete accounting of an event.”
    I beg to disagree. With the multitude of applications available that use the TWITTER API any tweet CAN BE long form journalism, complete with a picture or link to a video.

  5. The illusion is even more realistic if you view a tweet stream using an app like Flipboard. The tweet engine powers your connections under the hood and the app presents the sources in an impressive magazine layout.

  6. Peter Springett

    Good post. What’s also very interesting is the way that Twitter client user interfaces have evolved to become true news platforms, rather than just showing a flood of Tweets. Sure, breaking news is often broadcast first on Twitter, but it’s the arrival of clients that support multiple streams, search columns and analytics that mean that I now turn to Twitter (Twitter app on iPAD) or Flipboard for the news, rather than an online newspaper. The Twitter user experience now matches and in many ways exceeds an online newspaper, and that’s what is revolutionising news today.

  7. It’s not just bad for twitter, it’s also bad for sites. Whereas I used to at least check out sites like GigaOm daily, now I just wait till an interesting title pops up in Twitter.

    Like window shopping, before I may have read a story or two cause I was here already, and now I may not come here for days.

  8. Because Twitter is typically reporting news events before they hit the airwaves, and because these reports come from “unofficial” sources, we will need to continue to be cautious about the validity of the news we’re reading online.

    It is encouraging that such a platform can carry real information to real people, and maybe tweeting news events on Twitter will at least inspire journalists to at least check their sources as they pick up the story.

    • actually twitter doesn’t typically report news events before the airwaves — I’d say it more accurately helps amplify what is likely to be important news.

      Twitter is much more of a popularity “window” then an actual news platform, but of course saying that isn’t as popular.