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