Twitter for Community News

Twitter is one of those all-or-nothing phenomena that come around once in a while, so I won’t assume that you necessarily know all about it. Though a lot of people have been talking about Twitter, there is still a sizable portion of the population who have no interaction with social networking or media, let alone this particular site, so let me briefly summarize its services.

Introduction to Twitter (skip if you feel so compelled)

Twitter is a one-to-many messaging service confined to 140 characters, the same length as text messages sent from cell phones. People can follow you without your approval (unlike Facebook and Myspace, which require you to accept their “friendship”), which is part of what makes Twitter so good for marketing and communication. It’s easy to connect and requires little maintenance, and when you post a message, it shows up on the page of all your followers.

By the way, I specifically use the word “follow” because that is what Twitter uses. On launch, I have heard that it originally used “friends,” but later changed that because, honestly, who are they kidding? We’re not friends on Twitter, we just follow each other’s updates.

Twitter Search for News

I’ve employed Twitter Search a couple of times in the past to find out what was going on with a particular event, and the instant feedback it provides from other people is really… interesting. I can’t go so far as to say that it is always helpful, though.

Sometimes it is helpful, like last week when I was getting storm updates on the six tornados that were in our area. I didn’t have a TV available, and Twitter is way more responsive and fast than the news websites. In fact, if you can find a local reporter (as I did), you can get updates straight from the source as they roll in. I have also used Twitter to find out about Google outages, mail interruptions, and other major issues.

There are two negative aspects to this, though.

Fact-checking

When you are seeing news updates as they happen, you’re really getting information that hasn’t been verified or clarified. A good example of this from last week was the Twitter message, “OTC closed for the day” from @donwyatt. A few minutes later, he posted a clarification that it wasn’t their main campus, but a different one. I saw this throughout the day where something dramatic would be posted, and then later clarified because things weren’t quite as they seemed. “Roof collapsed, students trapped inside,” is technically accurate, but portrays the situation as somewhat different than it might actually be. ((The roof did collapse, for instance, and I think three students suffered minor injuries, but the rest were fine.))

Moreover, it’s hard to believe everything you see. I wanted up-to-the-second facts about the tornados, but I had trouble trusting everything I was reading on Twitter. Most of these people weren’t professionals, and even for the ones who were, they were just repeating what other people were calling in to the news room. What good is the news if it’s not trustworthy?

Limited scope

I don’t consider my town “small,” per se. I’ve been in small towns, and Springfield with its population of around 170,000 isn’t them. That being said, throughout the storm yesterday, I could only find about 5 people writing online about the storm, and one was a weather service bot. What’s more, if the issue at hand isn’t a major one that affects a lot of people, you won’t find anything. Combining a relatively minor event (say, a single car accident) with a small population of updaters and you’re unlikely to see anything on Twitter.

The problem with relying on Twitter for news is that Twitter users are a very, very small portion of the population. What’s more, they represent a different demographic than most people. Those who use Twitter extensively are still early adopters, in my opinion. This isn’t a service that has gone mainstream the way Facebook or Myspace has. It is being used by a lot of companies, a lot of news agencies, and a lot of writers and nerds, but I’m pretty sure my nieces and their friends aren’t on Twitter.

This means that you’re only going to get a certain take on events, a certain perspective, and you are most certainly not going to hear everythin. Due to not having many people posting, not that much can be covered. A news agency receiving calls and then posting them is one thing, and that’s helpful, but it’s still just a small cross-section of the community.

Full of potential

All that being said, it really made me wonder what else we could be using Twitter for. I really wished my neighbours used it and we had an agreed-upon hash tag ((A hash tag is attached to Twitter messages about a particular topic. You make these up as you go. The idea is that this creates a unique tag for which people can search to make filtering Twitter and finding updates on a specific topic easier. The hash tag for Springfield is #SGF, the same as our airport.)) so I could find out what was happening at home while I was stuck at work. The potential for community connections and up-to-the-second information sharing is huge.

Neighbourhood watches, announcing events, traffic issues, etc… there’s so much this could be used for, and that’s because it is such a simple service. It is simple enough to be applied in a wide variety of areas, but that’s only if you can get a lot of people to sign on and work together. If not everyone is using the Springfield hash tag, I have no way of finding their messages about Springfield. Similarly, if none of my neighbours use Twitter, I can’t search from work to see what’s happening in my home community.

In Conclusion

I hope it catches on more, but in the end, I use Twitter because I enjoy it and find it helpful. I’m not ready to become an evangelist for the service, and I’m certainly not going to go door-to-door trying to get people to sign up.

And while I will keep using it for news, I also recognize that I need to go back the next day and find out what actually happened. Short messages like those employed by Twitter are often referred to as “alerts,” and that’s just what they are. They let me know something is going on, and maybe a bit about it, but that’s never the whole story. It’s helpful, but only as a pointer. We still need to follow that lead and find the truth.

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