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Twitter and the Power of Giving People a Voice

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It didn’t get as much attention as his comments about generating revenue and fighting with Facebook, but to me one of the most interesting things that former Twitter CEO and co-founder Evan Williams said during his interview at the Web 2.0 Summit on Wednesday was his comment about how Twitter “lowers the barriers to publishing almost as far as they can go.” Williams said the impact of lowering these barriers is only beginning to be felt, and I think he’s right.

The answer came in response to a question from the audience about how Twitter empowers people to publish and effectively act as journalists, and Williams said lowering the barriers of entry into publishing is something he has worked on for most of his career (since he also founded Blogger, one of the leading early blog-publishing platforms, later sold to Google), and that he has done so based on his belief that “the open exchange of information has a positive effect on the world.” In a nutshell, Williams said, this is what the Internet as a whole allows us to do, and society is still trying to figure out all the repercussions that stem from “everyone having a voice.”

It’s not just Twitter that is empowering this, obviously — it’s everything from YouTube (s goog) and handheld video cameras to powerful cellphone cameras, from blog platforms and Tumblr to self-publishing via the Kindle (s amzn) and other e-book platforms. It’s an explosion of voices, and Twitter is at the center of it only because it makes “micro-blogging” so easy and the network has grown so huge that a tweet can be passed around the world and back before newspaper reporters are even getting their shoes on.

Yes, there is a lot of noise on Twitter, as Andrew Keen seems to argue in his recent debate with David Weinberger, but the point is that Twitter provides a firehose of both meaningful and non-meaningful data, in tiny bite-size pieces, and it’s up to you to figure out how to deal with it. That has led to some interesting tools aimed at “curation” — that is, pulling those fragments of information and conversation back together and making sense of them — such as Storify (built by former AP correspondent Burt Herman), and other services that allow you to pull together various threads from Twitter.

On an even deeper level, there’s a big opportunity to use that flood of 100 million tweets a day as the foundation for trend-filtering and other tools. Some startups have focused on how to use this to track social mentions of companies or products, such as Sysomos and Radian6, while others — such as Nick Hamstead’s DataSift and Tweetbeat, which was built by the analytical brains behind Kosmix — are trying to filter all that data and find out what the world is talking about in real-time. There’s huge potential there, not just for companies and advertisers, but also for journalism.

As Ken Doctor notes in a piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab — using Facebook’s new social inbox as the metaphor — news is everywhere now; it comes to us in all kinds of different forms and different ways, and obviously Twitter is one of those. Most traditional news organizations haven’t figured out how to use those tools effectively yet, or how to take advantage of this transformation of the news industry, but some are trying. At its best, during events such as the subway bombing in London or the uprisings in Iran, Twitter allows for the true “crowdsourcing” of journalism, and that is a very, very powerful tool for the pursuit of truth, broadly speaking.

Many people are still focused on Twitter as a tool for promoting movies or TV shows, or see it as a toy that geeks and their friends play with to amuse themselves. The real power in what Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone created (and what Ev Williams later financed and built into a company) could well be that it is the simplest, the easiest and arguably one of the most efficient forms of mass publishing — or at least micro-publishing — ever invented. As Williams himself suggested, we’re still trying to figure out the full ramifications of that. It’s a good problem to have.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Nany Meta

15 Responses to “Twitter and the Power of Giving People a Voice”

  1. The last time I checked, there was not a mysterious group known as “them” and McLuhan would have loved this because the message is now the medium. Velocity can hurt us with misinformation, but can also help us. But either way, we have no way of slowing down the river of information.

    Target demos, cumulative audience, reaching eyeballs, audience impressions, user experience, legitimate journalism and who’s right are all up for discussion.

    If the current sites (tools) went bankrupt tomorrow, the almost two billion online users find the conversation, information, content and interaction to help, heel, sell and connect later tomorrow.

  2. This is what I have described as ambient journalism: acts of journalism happening all around us. You’re spot on when you write about the need to turn this firehose of tweets into context streams that are relevant to time, place and interests.

    From one of my journal papers:

    “Journalism, which was once difficult and expensive to produce, today surrounds us like the air we breathe. Much of it is, literally, ambient, and being produced by professionals and citizens. The challenge going forward is helping the public negotiate and regulate this flow of awareness information, facilitating the collection, transmission and understanding of news.”

  3. It’s true that Twitter has allowed for some of the easiest publishing the world has ever seen. I mean, what’s easier than a message in 140-characters or less that someone can type out in less than half a minute?
    Through this though, I would say I learn more from being on Twitter in a day than I would learn in a week (or sometimes a month) when I was in University. It allows for so much information to be created and shared and the best part is most of it comes right to me. I follow people who I think share interesting info about topics I’m interested in. But, the best part is if there’s interesting info coming from someone I’m not following, I know that if it’s really interesting it will still find it’s way to me through RT’s.
    This is going to change the world forever, and you’re right Mathew, it really is a wonderful problem that Twitter has on their hands.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  4. Focusing on what you said about there being a lot of noise on Twitter, I think that over time Twitter is going to be less and less about the ‘home timeline’ of people you follow, and more about tools that automatically analyse the content coming in from the people you are following such as Flipboard (, and tools that allow people to manually filter (curate) content coming in for others to then consume, such as Qrait (

    Twitter is becoming the message bus of the Internet; people are piping RSS feeds and all kinds of data into Twitter, it’s down to tools to utilise that data in more ways than just blindly displaying it in a timeline.

  5. great article. I think we have to remember one basic principle of statistics – that the sample size of the population is 30. In twitter terms, that means that although you follow hundreds of people your interested in, you should focus solely on 30…these users will provide one with a representation of the tweets one values.

    Just a thought!