The Revolution That Keeps, Well, Revolving

It’s interesting to watch how quickly our Web 2.0 tools are changing, changing us, changing the way we communicate, and being changed by us. And how each step feels like a revolution, and yet, usually, isn’t.

The latest thing is Twitter 2.0, as I would call it. Nothing has actually changed in the software, but the way people are using it has. What was originally a presence and status tool has become a communication, networking, information delivery and spamming tool. And it’s creating its own unique problems–which probably aren’t that unique, if you stand back from them–and now, its own rules.

Shel Israel, co-author of Naked Conversations, is the first I’ve noticed who is trying to wrestle with the new realities.

He starts out:

I’m a passionate about Twitter.  I spend more time in on it than in any other social media venue.  Twitter has been good to me.  It is the source of leads for my text and video blogs, not to mention several very nice consulting and speaking offers.

This has created what Shel calls “the most up close and personal of social media”. Shel uses Twitter as a place to communicate with fellow twitterers and meet new people within a “small neighborhood, one where it’s safe to speak out, where strangers are scrutinized by locals this all happens at a certain easygoing pace.”

But then he goes on to talk about the “new wave of adopters coming in”. I suspect we’ve all noticed this: legions of “followers” who add your twitter feed (“tweets”) to their list. The worry is that now the conversation Shel was having with his small neighborhood is being listened to by a legion of outsiders who may or may not be anonymous.

Twitter, it should be pointed out, allows various options: You can be private, or you can allow anyone to follow your tweets, or you can vet who follows you. If someone follows you, it kind of behoves you to check out their tweets, if not to actually follow them, then at least to get a sense about whether the person following you is the sort of person you want to have following you.

Shel has come up with what he calls his “Twitter Follow Policy:”

  • If I do not know who you are, or what you look like, or where you are coming from I will not follow you.
  • With very few exceptions, I will not follow brands, candidates, causes or company names. I wish to talk with humans, not brand icons, neither surveys nor bots. If you are a real person & you are passionate about your work, then I embrace you. If you are a Direct Marketer using Twitter to push you brand into my forehead, I will block you.
  • Even if you are a real person, I may not follow you. I need to see that you are talking either about topics or people I care about.
  • If you disagree with me, do it under your own name and I will respect you. If you personally insult me, I will block you. If you are consistently unpleasant or just boring, I will unfollow or block you.
  • With extremely rare exception, I will not follow anonymous Tweeters.

Wise stuff. But as some of the commenters on his blog post point out, people use Twitter for different reasons. Not everyone follows Shel (or to a much more modest extent, me) because they want a conversation with me. I don’t follow others for the conversation, necessarily. Many people don’t want to be followed, just like many people read blogs but don’t necessarily blog.

The problem here is that Twitter is a great tool that has already broken out of the constraints of its creators’ imagination. But now it’s created uses that may conflict with each other and create fresh problems, such as those experienced by Shel who see the informal networks with fuzzy but distinct ‘village limits’ undermined by outsiders who don’t know the ‘rules.’

I applaud the new lease of life that Twitter has been given with this new kind of usage. In some ways it is a striking counterbalance to what I believe is the failure of Facebook to evolve beyond the huge surge of a few months back; I’ve noticed that usage in my little world have fallen off quite dramatically since the beginning of the year. Facebook will eventually become a sort of ‘profile cemetry’ unless these users are convinced it represents more than a novelty ‘old friend discovery’ tool.

Twitter has stepped into the gap left here by the declining appeal, and lack of direct communication that presence tools offer (Jaiku et al) and the walled-garden, asynchronoous web page to web page/email world of Facebook. Twitter, via delivery mechanisms like Google Talk, have colonised a space that is “instant messaging with social characteristics.”

Shel’s approach is a smart one. Though I wonder how many of these kinds of policies we’ll have to come up with as the landscape continues to evolve.

Global Neighbourhoods: My Twitter Follow Policy

The New Newswire: a Dutch Student Called Michael

Twitter is now a news service in its own right. ReadWrite Web, an excellent website dedicated to Web 2.0 stuff, points out that the recent earthquake in England–not that unusual in itself, apparently, but rarely actually strong enough to be felt by humans—was reported first by Twitterers and by a Twitter-only news service called BreakingNewsOn (www.twitter.com/BreakingNewsOn): 

This story broke over Twitter in the past half hour, and nothing is up yet on the BBC sites, the Guardian, or the Telegraph. This story is breaking live on Twitter.

Looking at the situation a few hours later, it’s certainly true that mainstream websites have been a bit slow with the story. From what I can gather, the timeline is something like this (all times are in GMT):

Quake hits south of Grimsby 00:56  
First tweets 00:57  
BreakingNewsOn 00:59 (“Unconfirmed reports of earthquake in London”)
BreakingNewsOn 01:01 (“Reports of earthquake, working to confirm”, followed by lots of tweets)
BreakingNewsOn 01:10 (confirmation from European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre)
Dow Jones Newswires 01:29 (quotes BBC report)
Associated Press 01:30 (garbled alert)
Reuters 01:36 (“Quake shakes Britain, no casualties reported”)
AFP 01:45 (“Moderate quake shakes Britain”)
BBC twitter feed 01:56 (“Tremors felt across England”)

There may be some holes in here: I don’t have the exact time when the BBC website first carried the story, but I’m guessing it’s a few minutes before the wires. And this is not the first BreakingNewsOn has been ahead: It was, according to some reports, first on the Benazir Bhutto assassination, although I’ve not been able to confirm that. 

So who or what is BreakingNewsOn, and how does it scoop the big guys on their own turf? The service is actually pretty much one guy, a 20-year old Dutch student called Michael van Poppel, according to this interview by Shashi Bellamkonda. He is a news junkie, and makes money from it too, doing something called web-trawling—searching the net for stuff he can sell to the big players. (He was the guy who last September dug up a videotape of Osama bin Laden, which he then sold to Reuters.) 

Van Poppel works with a couple of other people and is clearly experienced and voracious in hoovering up web content. But it’s also about citizen journalism, crowd sourcing, whatever you want to call it: in the case of the UK quake, the first alerts actually came from witnesses, who twittered about the jolts they felt; it was BreakingNewsOn’s skill in harvesting that information, and staying sufficiently close to its readers for them to think to share their experience, that led to the fast turnaround. 

Of course, there’s much about this that is new. Everyone is now a reporter, if they find themselves in the middle of news. And everyone can be a media publisher: In this case it’s one 20-year old student with a twitter feed and an Internet-connected computer. And, finally, everyone can now subscribe to that once holiest-of-holies: a newswire service that updates in real time. Only now it’s not called a Reuters terminal or a Bloomberg but Twitter. 

But behind that, not much has changed. I’ve covered a few quakes in my time, and it’s all about finding the stuff out quickly by getting it out quickly. Nothing much has changed. No one was injured or killed, and it sounds like there was no falling masonry or damage to buildings. But that’s no excuse: earthquakes are news, and especially if they’re the strongest in the country for more than two decades

Twitter is perfectly suited for breaking news, because it’s all about short pithy sentences and updates. As ReadWrite Web points out, during the California wildfires last year, Twitter and other citizen journalism tools were used by people on the ground, scooping the mainstream press. And all this offers some lessons for the mainstream press that it would be wise to absorb: 

  • Mainstream media cannot afford to be slow off the mark on stories like this, since their value to high-paying subscribers is intimately tied to their speed;
  • Alert streams are no longer the province of market traders;
  • Traditional media needs to find a way to work with these new sources of news, or else find a way to add value that such services cannot. In this case it could have been finding a way to reflect in the headlines the unusual nature of this event;
  • Traditional media has to both monitor these new sources of news–the tweets from ordinary folk surprised to be shaken awake by a tremor—and work with them to ensure that they, too, benefit.

Some might say that what van Poppel does isn’t news. I’d contest that. He did everything right in reporting the story: it’s big enough an event to merit an “unconfirmed” snap, a quick follow-up which contains what we old newshounds would call an advisory letting subscribers know what he’s doing and to expect more. When he got confirmation he put out, all within 10 minutes. That’s a time-tested, old-fashioned and reasonable news approach. He leveraged the new media, but he showed an understanding of news values and what his readers needed. 

Kudos to him. We all could learn a lesson.

(An extended version of this post is available for publication to newsprint media as part of the Loose Wire Service. More details here, or email Jeremy Wagstaff directly.)

Twitters: Poetry or Drivel? Part II

Nick Carr’s interesting take on Twitters: does their brevity make them meaningful or just another channel of crap? Three quick points:

+ Twitters, like blogs, run the gamut from poetry to drivel
+ One person’s drivel is another person’s poetry: It usually depends on whether you know them or not
+ This has more to do with America’s late awakening to the cultural shifts of SMS which the rest of us got used to more than five years ago.

clipped from www.roughtype.com

James Governor has posted two love notes to Twitter over the last couple of days. In the latest, he argues that Twitter’s 140-character limit promotes brevity. He says that the suggestion that you can’t be “either deep or meaningful” in 140 characters or fewer is nonsense – it’s “evidence of the verbosity of our culture.”

Twitter: SMS for Those Who Missed the SMS Revolution

Joi Ito neatly sums up what Twitter really is: The U.S. dudes finally getting what has been going in the rest of the world for several years: the Internet is all around us, whether it’s the web or SMS.

clipped from joi.ito.com

Twitter was funny for me because it was like the whole “laptop crowd” getting the “aha” that Europe and Asia had with SMS awhile back – the idea that the Internet isn’t about “cyberspace” that turns on when you open your laptop, but that the Internet was something that you could carry around with you and that could ping you when it needed you.

Twittintimacy?

Everyone is twittering about Twitter, but I kind of liked this defintion from Leisa Rechelt; “Ambient intimacy”. I like the term, and the piece is definitely worth a read.

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

Twittering in the Forest

I was a bit rude about Twitter in my last WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid), about the Web 2.0 satire Useless Account:

I can’t have an online conversation these days, for example, without someone telling me to use Twitter, a fabulously popular way to broadcast your current activity (and I mean current, as in “ear cleansing while waiting for YouTube to load”) to anyone interested, via your blog or cellphone. (Yes, I have signed up. No, I don’t use it much. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, so the idea I’d actually be in a position to tell anyone else is unlikely. But how long will I hold out from using it? Probably not long.)

Of course, I’m probably on the wrong side of history here. Scoble et al love it. He has 469 followers (in case you have better things to do with your time, Twitter allows you to ‘follow’ other people’s twitterings, to basically see everything they write in their twitter account.

In fact, the ‘follower’ moniker is somewhat apt — Web 2.0 has become very religious, what with all these A list bloggers and product evangelists. People follow Scoble in the way they might have followed some mystic. (Of course I’m jealous! I’m not being followed by anyone except that mangy cat from the warung and some weird person who thinks I’m writing this blog for him.)

Anyway, Twitter probably tells us more than we’d like to know about this particular slice of Internet history. Robert says:

Anyway, I find I keep coming back to Twitter. It’s an interesting way to keep in touch with the lives of your friends, or followers, as it were.

It’s not as if this is not a bad idea. I’m into the idea of presence — being able to broadcast your availability so that those trying to reach you can fit their schedules into yours — and vice versa. Set your Skype note to “in a meeting and about to rush for a plane” and friends will know that you probably don’t want to yack on the phone about Britney Spears’ new hairdo. But Twitter probably takes this a bit too far — instead of it being a tool to fight distraction, as presence tools are — it becomes a tool of distraction, where one obsessively updates, and monitors others’ updates, to the exclusion of all else.

I prefer the assessment of Shawn Oster who suggests that in fact Twitter is about people feeling

they’re being heard. Everyone wants to feel unique and to feel like they matter, that they’re being noticed. Blogs are a great way to do that but now that there is more pressure to make your blog actually mean something instead of just an online diary people are looking for an easier way to still be digitally heard.

Probably truer than we’d like to admit. We’re firing these little messages out into space, and by building around us a network of friends and followers we’re feeling connected and noticed. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a reflection of what constant communication is doing to us: we don’t feel ‘validated’ unless what we’re doing is somehow observed and noted by others. The old tree falling in the forest thing, I guess: If no one heard it fall, did it make a sound? If no one knew we went out for milk and newspapers, did we?

I’m off to buy milk and newspapers and will report as much to my 1.5 followers on Twitter.

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