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.

Generations Seeking

lonely

When I look around at my peers, I see a great deal of confusion, insecurity, instability, and/or non-commitment. I first thought that this had to do with comparitive opportunities: where our parents might have had relatively few choices regarding what they might do with their lives (limited by finances, education, family, etc.), my generation(s) seem to have fewer, if any, barriers. Education is relatively easily accessible and affordable, the Internet makes information pervasive and instantly available, and the cost of learning continues to decline.

I began to think that, if we are unable to decide what we want to do with our lives, it isn’t because we don’t have the opportunity to do what we like. Rather, it’s because we see and experience so much we enjoy that we can’t settle on what we want to do. Despite this initial conclusion, however, it didn’t seem to fit. We could do a little of everything, or settle on something, and enjoy our lives, but I don’t see a lot of people who are satisfied. Rather, most everyone I know continues to yearn for something else, usually something indefinable.

While conversing with April about this topic, we came upon an interesting thought. Our parent’s generation (labeled as the Baby Boomers, from which both Generations X and Y really sprung) were a group of independent, centralized small families. Following World War II and especially the Vietnam War and subsequent political fallout, there was a move away from the larger community, with a greater a focus indoors on the household, on the family, and on isolationism.

I believe that growing up in this setting has instilled in our generation a deep and abiding desire for community that we might neither understand nor acknowledge. We know that we are unsatisfied, that we want something more, but we’re not finding it in money, materialistic goods, education, careers, etc. We want a family, but we want more than the nuclear family of our parents.

For a lot of people, though, I think that desire has been associated with negative experiences from our childhoods to the extent that people are hesitant to seek out the community they desire. A dislike of “organized religion,” or organized-anything for that matter, leaves people in a place where they cannot get the satisfaction and help they need. And so people remain unsatisfied, frozen, and insecure.

And if one isn’t put-off by an organized group (and let’s face it, someone has to bring people together for there to be a community; there has to be a core before anything else can form), their hesitance tends to come from other insecurities. We become afraid to invest in people because either we might leave or they might. College-age students in particular struggle with this, because their time in any location is limited: once they graduate, get a job, etc., they’re gone and those relationships are left behind.

Or, in perhaps the most self-destructive state, we do not seek out community because we feel selfish doing so. We don’t feel like we’re worthy of friendship, or we feel like we’re imposing on others by seeking them out. We are hurt by our loneliness, and then hurt ourselves further because we cannot trust others to help. We do not seek help and so degenerate into self-imposed isolation and depression.

Those of us who are secure, and have found our communities, have an obligation to reach out to others and alleviate their loneliness. Some people might not know what they are seeking, but they will know when they have found it. All we have to do is welcome them with love and the rest will take care of itself.

Image by: mrjamin

I Eat Poetry

After Parting
by Sara Teasdale

Oh, I have sown my love so wide
That he will find it everywhere;
It will awake him in the night,
It will enfold him in the air.

I set my shadow in his sight
And I have winged it with desire,
That it may be a cloud by day,
And in the night a shaft of fire.

When I first began considering the revision of my website and online presence, I questioned how involved I wanted to become in the online community. To build a strong relationship among bloggers, one must read and comment on the work of others if one wants to develop ties and gain readers of their own. It takes a lot of time and commitment, and I wasn’t sure I was interested for or capable of devoting such effort to this cause.

However, I did join a community on LiveJournal where people post poems they like, and have been gratified by doing so. It’s wonderful to constantly be receiving different poems with a wide variety of topics and styles, and they are almost all good because people only post the poems they really like. Moreover, unlike so many communities I have seen, these aren’t poems the posters have written (which often aren’t as good), but published works by fantastic authors. It has led me to authors I’ve never heard of, and I can easily mark individual poems I like for later perusal.

One of the most important things for a writer to do is to read. One cannot write good poetry, for instance, if one does not read good poetry, and so I find communities like this invaluable.