February 25, 2009
Twitter fills an interesting niche in the world of online social networking. On Twitter, individuals micro-blog in 140 character bursts, and their readers only follow the people they choose to in their own customized “feed”.
Given how easy it is to post a message on Twitter and have it be broadcast almost instantly to one’s followers, Twitter becomes a medium of content delivery that is both faster than e-mail and wider reaching than an instant message conversation. Numerous people have taken advantage of the power of Twitter; Barack Obama announced his running-mate over Twitter, for one, and thousands of people followed and identified with the daily goings-on of the Mars Phoenix Rover via an employee at JPL posting on its behalf. Twitter has been used to humanize large corporations, give a heads-up to deal-seekers, and reiterate a company’s commitment to being interactive with its users. Even news organizations have taken to twitter, from new start-ups to well established members of traditional media.
This way Twitter is being used in this last instance is both promising and potentially scary. Here’s why.
It’s wonderful to receive news as it happens. Twitter allows for news to be relayed faster than traditional media outlets are able to report. For example, a few weeks ago I heard about a plane crash on Twitter five to ten minutes before it hit the news. Twitter allow the “person on the ground” to be heard by those around the world in record time.
This is a great, great tool for citizen journalism. The problems manifest when you tradeoff speed for reliability. It’s easy for rumors and misinformation to be spread around the internet, anyway, and by providing the means for anyone to become a reporter, the standards of journalism and reporting that traditional news outlets are held to are not enforced. The pressure to “get it out first” sure doesn’t help, either.
So not all reporting can be trusted, that’s a given. As long as people fact-check and confirm the things they hear, there’s no problem with being presented with conflicting information. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that most people do take what they hear at face value. Maybe regular users of the internet are different, I don’t know. Being able to quickly sort out fact from fiction is essential to using the web effectively as a research tool. As the web extends deeper into every facet of our daily lives, this skill becomes more and more important in shaping how we see the world around us.
I say, bring on the citizen journalism. Let’s just make sure we do it (and read it) responsibly.