A Twitter Experiment
Last week’s Editor & Publisher/Mediaweek Interactive Media Conference was by turns interesting and depressing, which was about what I’d expect from an industry trying some fascinating experiments while enduring a financial battering. I was intrigued by stories like David Cohn’s Spot.us, interested in the possibilities of placebogging and printcasting, and listened avidly to Chris Krewson’s wise, entertaining review of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Web efforts. Yet every note of optimism was shadowed by loss, by talk of whether or not newspapers would survive, of how start-ups hoped to not get yanked down by the vortex of sinking ships, of doing a bit more with a lot less. As Mr. Krewson himself noted, his paper has filed for bankruptcy protection.
But one of the most interesting things I wound up thinking about wasn’t on the program — it was, for me, an accidental discovery.
I got on Twitter a couple of months ago, and like a lot of people I didn’t really get it at first — it seemed like Facebook stripped down to status updates and governed by subtly different social rules. I like the “ambient intimacy” of Facebook and how it’s changed my relationships with friends and acquaintances, but Twitter seemed duplicative. On the other hand, there was a sense of fun about it. That 140-character limit forced status updates to be disciplined, if sometimes haiku-like, and there was a welcome sense of what-the-heck experimentation, of kicking the tires. You could make of Twitter whatever you wanted, and that was enough to keep me playing with it.
The first thing I came to like about Twitter was that it didn’t require the same often-strained reciprocity as Facebook — I could keep up with journalism thinkers, technologists and people I found interesting but didn’t know very well without having to pester them to accept me as a “friend.”
The second thing I came to like snuck up on me. Little by little, I realized I was increasingly hearing news first not from my aggregated news on My Yahoo, but from tweets. This was more of a slowly dawning realization that my habits had changed than a thunderclap moment (like the first time you went to Google instead of AltaVista, or the first night you used TiVo), but it was still an interesting change. By following people who were information junkies, cared about things I cared about and offered opinions I valued, I’d accidentally created a pretty good crowdsourced news service for myself.
At the Interactive Media Conference, I saw someone had set up a hashtag — #IMConf — but the presence of Twitter didn’t really register until I found myself fretting over how I was going to blog effectively while attending all the sessions I wanted to see and meeting all the folks I wanted to meet. Oh yeah, Twitter. You could tweet too, you know.
At first it felt awkward. My years as a reporter left me perfectly confident about separating the news signal from the presentation noise and knowing what to tweet, but there was a learning curve about how to do it. Like any journalism veteran, I have a good mental map of various newspaper lengths and (longish) blog posts — I know if I’m halfway to saying what I want to say, or two-thirds of the way there, and understand without thinking about it how I’ll get to the finish line. But I had no such navigational ability when writing 132 characters at a time. (Gotta save room for the hashtag!) I found myself writing and rewriting as the conversation went on without me — and when I did tweet, I’d discover that other folks in the session had tweeted first and done a better job. (Trying to keep up with Placeblogger’s Tish Grier was particularly humbling.)
I also noticed, in reloading the IMConf hashtag, that there were a lot of duplicative tweets. That was fine for individual Twitterers and anyone following them, but made the hashtag noisy for those following the overall conversation. So I stopped tweeting newsy stuff and stepped back, offering bits of analysis and asking questions as they came to mind. That, I hoped, would be a better use of both my nascent Twitter skills and my journalism experience — and, hopefully, make the hashtag more diverse and potentially more interesting.
As the conference continued, you could see some other people had done the same thing — they’d found a place in the conversation that made sense for them and for the overall discussion. Nobody talked about it and no formal decision was made — it just happened automatically, and fairly quickly. The process had only just started — the conference was only two days, after all — but I imagine if we’d kept going roles would have become even better defined, with even better results for anyone following along.
It was interesting to watch that unfold, and to think about how it might shape news coverage. It reminded me of a chapter from Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control,” which you can read here — what we were doing was a somewhat differentiated version of flocking. The mathematics of flocking and the way individual decisions can collectively create order from chaos feel very strange, even deeply counterintuitive. But such collective efforts work surprisingly well, whether the test is an audience at a conference “deciding” to do a 360 in a virtual plane or a bunch of people chronicling something 140 characters at a time.
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