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Why Twitter is not just for the birds

Fri, 20th May 2011

Never mind what happens in the superinjunctions saga – you can't buy that kind of publicity – It’s been a great few weeks for Twitter. Not only does it break news – you heard the death of Osama Bin Laden and the arrest of ex-IMF head DSK there first – it increasingly makes and indeed shapes it. Witness its role in first the Arab uprisings and the Uncut movements, and now the evolving superinfunctions story, in which it may turn out to be a lever to change the law. (Having like everyone else found the names of the 'celebs' after a 30-second search, I was disappointed to find I'd never heard of half of them. But there you go.)

Every new medium becomes fuel for existing media, and here again Twitter is no exception. Take the entertaining twitterspats between, for example, Lily Allen and Piers Morgan or – more seriously, as recounted recently in The Guardian– Ian Birrell and Paul Kagame. The journalist tweeted a disparaging comment on a press interview with the Rwandan president and was amazed to receive an immediate indignant response from Kagame himself, with Rwandan foreign minister pitching in for good measure. Writes Birrell: ‘In this new world, I was able to draw attention to Kagame’s original statement, he was able to respond and we could debate in real time watched by thousands of people worldwide, scores joining in with links, opinions and comments.’

One-hundred and forty characters is short, it’s true. But the terseness and immediacy that the medium demands is powerful compensation. Twitter can do profound (moving tributes on Remembrance Day) and serious (philosophical and political debate) just as well as trivial and pointless. Pomp and circumstance, whether the Royal Wedding, international economic gatherings or the Eurovision Song Contest, now positively demand an accompanying twitterfeed to deflate, praise and add instant commentary, and it rarely disappoints. Birrell is not alone in seeing Twitter ‘fast becoming the most important journalistic tool around’.

Actually, it may be more than that. Even to a (by instinct and training) print journalist and junkie like me, it's frighteningly obvious how easily Twitter could supplant the daily fix of newsprint.

News already breaks first on the 24/7 Twitter stream – see above, or if you prefer it in more structured form you can follow BBC News or plenty of other breaking news feeds. As for comment, even if your favoured columnists don’t tweet, other tweeps are unerringly good at pointing to feature and op-ed pieces all around the world, online as well as in print, giving a much wider agenda and more international sweep than the national newspaper you’re used to. And who needs editorials when you have thousands of diverse voices offering praise, critique and comment from all angles in real time? Combining all those, Twitter is the nearest thing so far to a Daily Me.

Then, too, for the increasing number of people who work from home, Twitter functions as a kind of surrogate office. While nothing can replace the adrenalin of a newsroom as the deadline approaches, Twitter does a pretty good job of replacing the myriad conversations going on at any one time in a buzzy open office – whether scurrilous, inconsequential, irrelevant-but-interesting, or bull's-eyeing slap bang in the centre of your area of interest. As in an office, the streams feed and breed off each other, so that an item that’s meaningless or trivial on its own takes on a diffferent slant when set in the context of another conversation. (Also as in an office, you have to have the strength of mind to shut the conversations out when you really need to work...)

The real ‘secret’ and significance of Twitter, though, is none of these things, although it informs them all. Never mentioned in discussions of its value (but instantly identified by Vanguard's John Seddon), it is that Twitter is part of the emerging economy that substitutes engaging ‘pull’ for hectoring industrial-age ‘push’. That is to say, as with iTunes only more so, you choose how and in what combination you want to take and use the Twitter conversation. It doesn't matter that 99 per cent of tweets are crap – of course they are. Ninety-nine per cent of everything is crap, but in this case it's you who get to decide what is and isn't. You choose whom you trust. Rather than submitting to the producers’ take-it-or-leave-it CD- (or newspaper-) shaped packages, it's up to you to mix and match.

Does this matter? Yes: for both users and the entrepreneurs who created the company, 'pull' has enormous implications. Because ‘push’ doesn’t work on Twitter (Twitter is opt-in, and let's face it, who’s going to opt in for ads and the hard sell?), it is a pretty useless medium for corporate sales and marketing (alas, I can’t find the stats that showed this – on Twitter, naturally).

That may seem to be a headache for Twitter’s founders, who have yet to figure out how to monetise its 200 million users. (See this piece in Fortune for a less than flattering portrait.) But perhaps they are looking in the wrong place. For the rest of us its absolute transparency is of course Twitter’s critical asset. Authentic shines through; so does fake, which is why the latter doesn’t work, and that’s exactly how and why we like it. Unlike, say, Linked-In, whose stock soared on flotation to unimaginable heights, Twitter is what we make it. If that includes making life richer, funnier, more convivial and exciting than it would be otherwise, I'd be happy to pay for it – and I don't think I'm the only one.


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