What Twitter is really for

Get your twitter mosaic here.

Oh man, how done are you with Twitter news reports?

Mostly, news stories on Twitter include a nut graf that looks something like the following passage from a recent piece in the New York Times near-obsessive coverage on the social medium:

In its short history, Twitter — a microblogging tool that uses 140 characters in bursts of text — has become an important marketing tool for celebrities, politicians and businesses, promising a level of intimacy never before approached online, as well as giving the public the ability to speak directly to people and institutions once comfortably on a pedestal [Source].

Many media are still reveling in introducing Twitter, in which they take a local user of new media and play their explanation with clever puns or skeptical variations of Twitter, tweeting, twittering, etc. Other pubs are trying their own new takes on the service, to the point that plenty of snarky bloggers and even news hounds are tired of the stories.

Rightly so, considering Twitter just turned three, hardly a new phenomenon. But all these folks joining the game, following that common nut graf, I think, are missing the point, particularly journalists.

I don’t think regularity matters as much as the balance between two Twitter features in my personal evaluation of someone’s use of the site – TwitterGrader be damned. That’s conversation and links.

I never tell anyone he needs to get on Twitter.

As a friend first described it to me almost two years ago, “Twitter is a time suck.”

And, of course, it is. But, it can be of great value, particularly to journalists. Many feel that, so reporters are flocking to the site, and people are tracking what newspapers have, too.

But too few are talking about how they should be best using Twitter.

Check a hilarious indictment of Twitter, I found from a friend:

Conversation

It isn’t an effective RSS feed, as some are suggesting rather firmly. It is important to note, though, that while the real game is about conversation and I maintain that’s what will help newspapers and other media find new readers and followers, there are exceptions of status. The New York Times Twitter account offers nothing more than an automated and regular trolling of its latest headlines, but it has some 450,000 followers.

Some suggest that Twitter could become a replacement for RSS feeds, something I don’t dismiss, but I newspapers have to stay in the game for now — unless you have become a brand of meaning like the N.Y. Times (i.e. it makes individuals feel educated, important and involved to be seen as a reader of the Times).

The value of social media like Twitter is a democratization of many conversations – news being one. In Philly, when a Fox 29 reporter was swiping Inquirer coverage without attribution, a Twitter user reached out to the news station and the daily newspaper. Karl Rove follows me on Twitter. Whether it will ever be used or not, that’s a line of conversation that could never have existed a decade ago.

I have made professional acquaintances with people online, and then followed that with personal interaction. Unfortunately, some news outlets, editors and reporters are scared of this two-way dialogue that defines new media, so not all interaction has followed.

That conversation is still necessary for media and will likely always be necessary for individual Twitter users. Mix it up. Meet new people, find new ideas and concepts.

Links

Now, a role that an automated RSS feed does offer is something many other users don’t: links.

While conservation is great, all those who have attempted to write the rules of what Twitters users shouldn’t do suggest inane and personal chatter between individuals that could be better done via instant message, Skype, a Twitter DM, a phone call or, you know, in person should be forbidden.

In choosing whether to tweet or to direct message, just think whether there’s a chance someone else might have something meaningful to add to the conversation. That’s the point of the chatter, to allow for consensus building and crowd-sourcing.

So, assuming you don’t have the celebrity to write simple phrases or suggestions that might craze the masses, like ?uestlove and Shaq have, Twitter is a great place to share ideas, and online, that means sharing links.

We’re entering the link economy, where links matter. In any dialogue online, it ain’t true if you can’t give me a meaningful link to back it up – one of the great values of transparency for news makers and tellers. If you want to discuss a trend, you better link out to the data, so I can check your math.

Twitter’s role as a feed reader could be a reality, but I still see a role for active linking on Twitter and the additional role of RSS feeds. As feed catchers add the possibility of sharing items from feeds – as Google Reader revolutionized – I see them as a means to share links with friends or colleagues.

I personally use Google Reader, an online application for which I see possibility of improvement but still love and respect it. Because I believe all journalists should be using a feed reader of some kind, I certainly would recommend Google’s take at it. So, among a cohort of peers, I do share links.

But, I have a much larger audience on Twitter, though a small percentage of them are watching their feed at a given time. Still, my Twitter account, as my followers may note, relies heavily on links – some my own, though I’m making a point of being a bit humbler on the self-promotion front, and many outside sites.

So friends, join Twitter if you must, but don’t follow the news reports so closely.

It doesn’t have to be about every inane detail if you don’t it to be. Share links and conversation with me and others.