Twitter: news source, news outlet

February 26, 2010

Twitter can play a key role in bringing the news of the world  to you– and in taking news about you (and your company or organization) out to the world.  So if you still think of  Twitter just as a  way people tell friends what they ate for breakfast, maybe it’s  time to take another look.  A good place to start might be David Talbot’s recent article in MIT Technology Review.

Talbot’s article is titled “Can Twitter Make Money?” –and the answer certainly seems to be yes.  But for anyone trying to publicize a project or product, what’s important is his explanation of how Twitter has been transformed into an essential news source, one that can provide information as fast as events happen.  Talbot was in Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters on at 10:10 am January 7,  when a medium-sized earthquake hit:

Throughout the Bay Area, thousands of Twitter users seized their smart phones or PCs to peck out 140-character-or-less tweets–updates in the form of text messages, Web-based instant messages, or posts on Twitter’s website. . .

Official USGS-confirmed data on the quake wouldn’t show up until 10:20 a.m. But at 10:12 a.m., the sixth-highest search return was a rolling scroll of tweets posted “seconds ago”: Wow, that was an earthquake jolt. . .

As Talbot notes, much the same thing happened during the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and during last year’s protests in Iran.  And it happens every day during a multitude of bigger and smaller news events,  from the  international to the very (“hyper”) local.

I now turn to Twitter on my cell phone when I want to check out  out happenings or noises in the ‘hood: Are those circling helicopters looking for escaped criminals or overseeing a traffic pileup?  Are those big booms in the night a non-holiday fireworks display– or other, less-happy, explosions?   Twitterers may or may not have the answer, or at least the real answer –so Tweet  consumer beware, of course, but official information often filters out much faster via “Tweets” than it is broadcast on local all-news radio or posted on local newspaper websites.  And it’s strangely comforting to know that you are part of a community sharing the same experience.

To witness this  yourself, you can  go to Twitter and enter any subject in the big home page search box ( for instance: “Health Care Summit” or “Brooklyn Explosions”) and see what pops up. (No, you don’t need a Twitter account . )

show options on google search

Even more “wow”-some:  check out  Google’s real-time search. It’s a bit hidden,  so fill in any Google search box and after you hit “enter”,  click on “Show options” above the results.

Then scroll down the menu that opens on the left of the page and click on “Latest”. Here are some results from this afternoon:

Google real-time search

[Update:  On the live Google page, after you click “latest”,  you’ll have to wait a few seconds before real-time results load and start scrolling. ]

This, by the way, as Talbot reports, is one way Twitter has made a lot of money– by selling real-time “Tweets” to Google and to Microsoft’s Bing search.

In Google, as you’ll see, real-time search results include blog posts and Facebook  updates as well as Twitter “tweets”, so if you pick a popular enough topic (try: “Obama”) you can watch the results scroll as new posts come in. This is quite a change if you are used to search results that are months or even years old. Real-time searches often include posts that were made only seconds earlier.

(Though –take note– if you compare Google real-time search with Twitter’s own feed for a particular search term, you’ll see that not every Tweet appears in Google, at least not at the same time as it appears on Twitter, and as with all Google searches,  the reasons for an appearance or non-appearance on Google are rather mysterious– or at least arcane.)

You can use also use  special mini-programs– such as  Tweetdeck or Monitter on your computer or one of many Twitter “apps” for you cell phone– to keep an eye on who’s saying what about a variety of subjects.

Once you’ve experimented with this for yourself, you may have a better idea of the power of Twitter as a kind of  customized, personalized news service.   And you’ll see why monitoring Twitter is now an essential part of many journalists’ reporting routine.

Most important, you’ll probably see why, if you want to get news of your own project or product out where it can easily be seen by the public and journalists, a Twitter account  should be a key part of your online toolkit.

Like any other tool, you shouldn’t expect to master it instantly.  But you can start learning about Twitter painlessly by using it for a while to keep track of news about subjects you are interested in. It’s a pretty fair bet that you’ll quickly want to add your own “tweets” to the stream.  (And don’t worry, unless you want to, you won’t need to tell anyone, ever, what you had  for breakfast.)

Update 2/27/2010:  See this additional tip if you are  a novice Twitter user trying to follow news about this morning’s terrible earthquake in Chile.

Filed under: iTools 101,social media

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