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Why Twitter matters and possible side-effects

November 19, 2010

15 things Twitter does effectively

Alan Rusbrisger’s Guardian article on the value of Twitter to media organisations provides an interesting summary of the uses of the site and its effects on journalism.

The 15 points Rusbridger raises, and the debates they cover, provoke thought about the way media organisations engage with those around them, the great community of internet “users”. His points are not just about Twitter, they are about the whole of the new, amazingly open world of online.

I want to pick up on four of his points about the way users can now engage with media organisations. Although the internet creates an open and level playing field in which people are able to contribute, participate and engage, is there an unintended side-effect of this exciting influence on journalism? Does the impact of these changes start to exclude those who still want nothing more than to read content?

Rusbridger points out the following on how twitter opens up the previously closed, hierarchical model of journalism:

From his point 7 – It’s a series of common conversations. Or it can be

It’s a series of common conversations. Or it can be As well as reading what you’ve written and spreading the word, people can respond. They can agree or disagree or denounce it. They can blog elsewhere and link to it… With Twitter you get an instant reaction. It’s not transmission, it’s communication.

His point 8 – It’s more diverse

Traditional media allowed a few voices in. Twitter allows anyone.

And point 10 – It’s a level playing field

The energy in Twitter gathers around people who can say things crisply and entertainingly, even though they may be “unknown.” They may speak to a small audience, but if they say interesting things they may well be republished numerous times and the exponential pace of those re-transmissions can, in time, dwarf the audience of the so-called big names. Shock news: sometimes the people formerly known as readers can write snappier headlines and copy than we can.

Major users of the internet as a source of information and opinion love the online world for this egalitarianism. And Rusbridger explains how this in turn has begun to alter journalistic discourse.

his point 9 – It changes the tone of writing

A good conversation involves listening as well as talking. You will want to listen as well as talk. You will want to engage and be entertaining. There is, obviously, more brevity on Twitter. There’s more humour. More mixing of comment with fact. It’s more personal. The elevated platform on which journalists sometimes liked to think they were sitting is kicked away on Twitter. Journalists are fast learners. They start writing differently.

It is clear that this change does not just apply to Twitter. When Rusbridger talks of the “elevated platform on which journalists sometimes liked to think they were sitting,” he refers to a species of journalism he believes is (or soon will be) extinct. Media organisations are surely the better for embracing developments.

Inclusion or Exclusion?

But at this comparatively early stage, there are still people who don’t read news in order to engage, share, link and discuss. There are, I think, a great many people who have no desire, inclination or motivation to add a comment, like a post or share a link. People for whom news is something they need to read to keep up with the issues of the day. They want to know what’s happening and why.

Even amongst regular internet users, recent CNN research showed that 87 per cent of news links are shared by just 27 per cent of users. A minority of hyperactive users share a large majority of all links shared through social media. Most people – even those who use social media tools – don’t do much at all. Many people are still, to use an unholy word to web 2.0 generation, consumers, not users.

But if the tone of writing and style of journalism is changing to adapt to the interactive new world before us, where does that leave those who don’t want to interact? If those who want to read the news and nothing more are faced with a splurge of icons inviting them to comment, upload data, check us out on twitter, answer Do You Think A or B questionnaires or read the dribblings of the commentariat, they will surely be less well served than before. That’s fine, of course. Things can’t stay the same forever. And in any case, they can just buy a printed newspaper.

But what happens after the print newspaper dies its surely inevitable death? Will everyone, over time, learn to play a part in the modern media landscape? Or will the group of passive readers obtain? Perhaps there is a group of people for whom the march of new media and the explosion of online interactivity and opportunity is actually exlcusive rather than inclusive. Are journalists beginning only to provide for those who want to engage?

Perhaps so. Perhaps it really will be a case of get involved or get out.

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