Twitter, Ambient News and Experimentation
In February, the Los Angeles Times’s David Sarno interviewed Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey about the now-ubiquitous service and its origins. (It’s a two-parter, second part here.) Dorsey says that his initial idea for Twitter was inspired by vehicle dispatch. He noted that truck couriers and bike messengers roving around a city constantly offered updates on their position and what they were doing. Then he realized that another layer of such communications emerged from taxi cabs making their rounds, and yet another layer was created by emergency vehicles going about their business. Put together, such layers offered a rich sense of what was happening in a city at a given moment — except that regular people were missing. That’s where Twitter came in.
It didn’t begin as a grass-roots mechanism for reporting news, or as crowdsourced newsreader, though Twitter is good at those things. It’s good at lots of other things, too — as Dorsey tells Sarno, “the concept is so simple and so open-ended that people can make of it whatever they wish.”
For me, Twitter is most valuable as a newsreader, to the point that I now use it to track fast-moving stories as they unfold. What I find most interesting about the service is that’s not at all what I set out to do with it — the first time I realized Twitter had become a news feed was when I realized I was increasingly turning to it for news. It was an accident.
When I started using Twitter, I followed a number of people who share my professional interest in the future of journalism and how newsrooms can meet journalism’s challenges. To that, I added a layer of people who share my interest in the New York Mets, baseball, Brooklyn and Star Wars. And, of course, I followed my friends. I didn’t follow any general news feeds, because I didn’t see the need — I got such news elsewhere, and had no interest in getting it through Twitter.
But I got it anyway. (As discussed here.) It just happened — heck, if I’d consciously set out to make Twitter a newsreader, I would have constructed it a lot differently. (And it probably wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.)
I don’t get all my general news from Twitter — I didn’t read anything yesterday about Obama and Medvedev, or the riots in western China. What I do get are the big stories — Sarah Palin quitting, Michael Jackson dying, the Tehran protests. I get them because they transcend all the little categories in which I follow people. The Mets agonistes I follow don’t care about Wookiees and the Star Wars folks I follow don’t care about David Wright, but people in both those camps found Palin’s departure tweet-worthy. As it turns out, that’s a very handy way of filtering for big stories.
I’ve started to think of this as ambient news. It’s ambient in the sense that it flows through my Twitter feed alongside the personal and the professional items, as well as in the sense that it’s spread by people from all walks of life, in the digital-age version of “Didja hear?” (As such, it’s a subset of “ambient intimacy,” the term coined by Leisa Reichelt.)
So what roles and responsibilities should newspapers take on in a world of ambient news? They should worry less about breaking news (though of course it’s great if you really do have something exclusively) and worry more about verifying and curating. Acknowledge you’re hearing the same rumors and/or poring over the same reports as everybody else, say what you’re working on (within competitive limits) and let people know when you expect to have it. Knock down rumors that are untrue. Offer analysis and perspective if it can be done in 140-character bursts, or point people to particularly good examples of it, whether it’s your own work or somebody else’s. Be useful, discriminating and interesting — signal amid the news. That’s what good Twitterers do. (For the problem of creating an identity for an organization, see the Chicago Tribune’s ColonelTribune.)
But there’s a more general lesson here: Experiment all the time, with anything and everything that might further the mission of being useful to readers. “Vehicle dispatch for people” isn’t a concept that immediately makes you think “Hey, that’s a valuable way to strengthen our bond with our readers,” but that’s what happened with Twitter. A newspaper that’s not just willing but eager to experiment has the best chance of making the next unlikely leap.
Addendum: Fun story from the aforementioned Chicago Tribune about whether or not music fans still yell “Freebird!” at concerts. Lots of great details about the band and the song. This story is dear to my heart because I wrote about the tradition while I was at the Wall Street Journal. My WSJ take — kindly noted by Tribune reporter Christopher Borrelli — is here.
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