obtained via flickr.com

I’ll be honest – when I first set up a Twitter account nearly a year ago now, I didn’t like it. It just didn’t grab me. I only knew a small number of people who had a Twitter account, and following a selection of politicians, comedians and celebrities was not as exciting as I’d hoped it to be.

It wasn’t until earlier this year, in my Advanced Broadcast Journalism unit, that I discovered the major drawcards of the social media site.

The main idea I needed to get out of my head was that TWITTER IS NOT FACEBOOK. I needed to realise that Facebook is for sharing and connecting with the people I already know personally, whilst Twitter is for sharing and connecting with the people outside of my peer group, such as journalists, politicians, academics and even some celebrities (who, by the way, are not as interesting in tweet form as one might think).

Along with the increase in use of smartphones, Twitter and other forms of social media are leading the way to a more informed and involved society. ABC managing director Mark Scott said in ‘The Golden Age for Australian journalism’ that he usually checks the news on his phone, before checking news broadcasts and newspapers, and that sites like Twitter are leading people to more news articles than they might have gone to on their own.

“I think the evidence is clear that people are interested in news, in debates and in ideas. They are curious, and appreciate great stories and many are ‘leaning forward’, paying close attention, wanting to participate.” (Scott, 2010)

However, to get the most out of Twitter, one needs to either own a smartphone, or be seated at a computer all the time. I was lucky enough to have an iPhone throughout this semester, and I am sure that I wouldn’t feel as enthusiastic about Tweeting if I hadn’t owned one. This could then limit the number of established Twitterers to those who happen to own the right phone, leaving out a group of potential followers.

After some lessons on how to utilise Twitter to its full potential, I realised that I could gather information from the Twittersphere, whether it be the solution to a technical problem from a classmate, or tweeting out a poll for a news story, and receiving feedback from it.

As Josh Constine says in ‘Facebook for Journalists: More Work Than Twitter, but with a Bigger Payout’, ‘Twitter’s public nature discourages low quality replies, so journalists don’t have to slog through thousands of comments the way they might on Facebook. It’s also easy to measure impact and success, even if inaccurately, by counting retweets.’ (Constine, 2011)

So how does Twitter stack up against Facebook?

For the budding journalist, it’s far easier to develop a professional profile on Twitter than on Facebook, by tweeting out articles focusing on news coverage as they build up their followers outside of their friendship circle.

Facebook on the other hand, is a little more complicated to establish yourself as a journalist. These days, most users are very particular about privacy (I know I never add anyone I don’t know), and the only way to gain an audience is by setting up a fan page or a group. This then relies on your friends to pass on the link to some of their friends, but there is still a danger of only reaching an audience with similar views to your own.

For the more established journalists though, Constine argues that Facebook should be the next social media tool they should tackle.

“But with Facebook sporting as many as 10 times more active users, journalists should still be focused on mastering the social network, even if it takes more work than just tweeting copy and pasted URLs” (Constine, 2011)

Before the rise of social media, you would often hear breaking news on the radio or television. Now, Twitter is the first port of call for breaking news. As Julie Posetti writes in Media Shift: ‘How Journalists are Using Twitter in Australia’, “Twitter is being used not only as a place to cover and monitor breaking news, but also a place for sources to break news.” (Posetti, 2009)

Roy Clarke discusses how ‘mini-serialization’ tweets provide perfect snapshots of an unravelling event, and quotes Toronto Star reporter Joanna Smith covering the Haiti earthquake:

  • “Was in b-room getting dressed when I heard my name. Tremor. Ran outside through sliding door. All still now. Safe. Roosters crowing.”
  • “Fugitives from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.”
  • Woman shrieking, piercing screams, ‘Maman!  Papa! Jesus!’ as dressing on her wounded heel is changed outside clinic. No painkillers.” (Clarke, 2011)

An example that immediately comes to mind is the news of Osama bin Laden’s death on 2nd May. A Tweeter by the name of ReallyVirtual (real name Sohaib Athar), who describes himself as ‘An IT consultant taking a break from the rat-race by hiding in the mountains with his laptop’, was the first to tweet from Abbottabad.

Shortly after came this tweet:

By this stage, his number of followers on Twitter has multiplied, and he comes to the realisation…

(Athar, 2011)

This is a perfect example of the increase of ‘Citizen Journalism’, which is riding on the social media wave. Journalists can now keep an eye on tweets from certain areas or parts of the world, or by following particular hashtag topics (the #osama tweetstream, for example), for immediate updates on events. When the news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke out, the first tweets, from Sohaib Athar and similar, were from locals in the area who were wondering what was going on. Soon, the story began to unfold – on Twitter, one tweet after another, until finally President Obama and the White House made it official:

(The White House, 2011)

But as Rory O’Connor points out in ‘Word of Mouse: Credibility, Journalism and Emerging Social Media’, this bombardment of new information from everyday people can leave news audiences wondering what is fact and what is fiction.

“Facing a virtual tsunami of unfiltered information – powered by an ongoing technological revolution that has democratized tools of media production and distribution, created by an unprecedented amalgam of increasingly beleaguered professional journalists and newly besotted amateur ‘citizen reporters’, and distributed via a wide variety of both traditional and new media – how can any of us be sure that the news and information we see and hear is true?” (O’Connor, 2009)

So whilst audiences are able to get their information more quickly from online social media, there are those that are a little dubious of a 140 character tweet. Harley Dennet is quoted in the Mediashift series as saying audiences take a news breaking tweet with a grain of salt – they need more information before accepting the Twitterer as a credible source.

“Sometimes people don’t believe me when I reveal something on Twitter before the full story, with supporting quotes and documentation, comes out in print or online,” he said. “It’s hard to prove something in 140 characters when there’s nothing to link.” (Posetti, 2009)

Twitter then becomes not only a source of fast information, but a method to stream an audience to the traditional online and broadcast media, which they perhaps would not have done by themselves in the first place.

The so-called ‘older’ media is not dying out, it is simply evolving around the increasing use of social media, and is, if anything, being enhanced by sites like Twitter. Traditional media needs to join the ride, or risk being left behind.