Over the past six months, as Twitter has evolved from obscure internet phenomenon to overhyped global trend, it has polarised opinion, inspired contempt and, most worryingly, been cast as a possible remedy to the decline of print journalism.
As a medium for news, Twitter does have its benefits: it outpaces newspapers, culls information directly from its source and can aggregate content quickly, creating archives and highlighting trends within a remarkably short span of time. But to overemphasise these qualities is to miss the point. With speed and succinctness its most newsworthy features, Twitter represents a twist on a classic journalistic dictum: this minute’s news is the next minute’s forgotten URL.
When taken as a crowd phenomenon, however, Twitter becomes more relevant. Unlike Facebook or Myspace, which are organised around carefully groomed individual online personas, Twitter is group-based. Uers can create personal salons in which private conversations are pooled into a single news stream. This is a good way to disrupt the myopia of one’s own internet habits, and also it’s probably the only way 460,000 people would ever be privy to the personal musings of John McCain (or Slavoj Zizek, for that matter). If you’re selective about who you follow, trends often emerge, and checking a feed begins to resemble eavesdropping at an unusually entertaining party.
Writing in Slate Farhad Manjoo, a tech columnist, observed that Twitter is “not—or, at least, not yet—a necessary way to stay socially relevant in the information age.” He’s right. Unlike Facebook, which has become a 21st-century necessity, Twitter is less about defining identity than it is about managing the creation of communities and the flow of information. Like the production of news, the ability to decide what is newsworthy is fast becoming a bottom-up process, meaning that users can influence content by shaping trends. Instead of readers following headlines, it’s now journalists who find themselves chasing online memes in search of a story. Additionally, with the proliferation of sites like TweetBrain, Twitter is now an indispensable means of crowdsourcing–a mode of engaging the public to respond to specific questions or tasks, such as designing a health-care policy or writing a Wikipedia entry.
In general, Twitter’s genius is less in its content than in its organisation. While it’s occasionally good for breaking stories, such as with January's plane crash in the Hudson, it’s primarily a rhizomatic database, an archive in which users transcend profession or geography. Through organising itself around keywords, Twitter pushes internet journalism to its extreme, collapsing distinctions between reader and writer, specialist and novice. It makes it equally easy to access either niche communities or an undifferentiated public.
As new information technologies redefine expectations and communities, journalism must evolve to balance the wisdom of the individual with the input of the crowd.
Picture credit: Kathy Sierra