Friday, May 22, 2009

@Media140: Twitter continues inexorable rise

TechCrunch announced yesterday Twitter got 32 million unique visits last month while on the same day London held its first microblogging conference. While unrelated, the two events confirm the phenomenal rise of Twitter. What began in October 2006 as a San Francisco-based 10-person start-up called Obvious, now gets more monthly unique visitors than big players including Digg (23 million), LinkedIn (16 million), and the (17.5 million). And the 32 million figure does not count millions more who send and read tweets via phones, desktop apps, or other websites.

Known as Media 140, the South Bank conference met to discuss why this rising star was taking over the world 140 characters at a time. There, among others, were The Guardian’s blogs editor Kevin Anderson, Sky News Online senior editor Jon Gripton and TechCrunch’s own editor Mike Butcher.

The key to Twitter is speed. Following on from regular blogging, microblogging fulfils a need for an even faster mode of communication. The shorter posts lower users’ requirement of time and thought investment. As Pew Internet pointed out in February, the ways in people use the technology, reveals their affinity for mobile, untethered and social opportunities for interaction.

There would have been plenty of untethered opportunities for networking and hangovers yesterday but @media140 also saw a lot of good discussion about where this upstart media is taking us. Sky's Gripton says his company now employs a Twitter correspondent as they acknowledge the tool to be an effective news feed. However Mike Butcher and tech writer Bill Thompson baulked at describing Twitter purely as a journalistic device. "The difference to PA [Press Association] and Twitter is the difference to looking at a newspaper front page and the ocean,” Butcher said. Thompson went further and compared journalists to parasites who viewed Twitter as "just there to serve our needs".

Digital journalist Joanna Geary was on a panel where the conflict of those needs came up. The question “how do local newspapers make money” kept cropping up to the panel. It was, granted, a hugely important question for the industry. But Geary saw the problem differently. When money is taken out of the equation she says, what we crave most are four things: satisfying work, being good at something, spending time with people we like, and being part of something bigger. Geary says that by thinking about problems with these four goals in mind, interesting solutions begin to emerge. She admitted she hadn’t fully thought out how this would happen. “[B]ut it seems to me,” she wrote today, “that this is a better line of enquiry to follow if we want to make local news more relevant to consumers.” It also seems more relevant for Twitter itself.

This is also the line of enquiry followed by Courtney Honeycutt and Susan Herring. Honeycutt and Herring are Indian University researchers who theorise that Twitter is being taken over by conversational interaction and collaboration. The pair note how the @ (at-sign) in Twitter has created a convention for conversation or as they called it “a marker of addressivity”. Although the central question Twitter itself asks its users is “what are you doing?”, Herring and Honeycutt found that 58 percent of Tweets do not answer that question.

It must be questionable if Twitter can cope when more than half its users do not follow the “guidance note” provided by the question. Yet these other uses are clearly driving phenomenal traffic to the tool. So far, the scalability of the “Ruby on Rails” built application is certainly formidable. It carries 26 times as much traffic as it did this time last year. But it is safe to assume the numbers will get much higher yet before they stabilise so there remains plenty of technical work for it to survive Peak Twitter.

(Picture credit:Sizemore at Flickr). In the meantime, as Media 140 confirms, Twitter has become a crucial part of the journalists arsenal. Conference attendee Kevin Anderson quoted writer Pat Kane highlighting some of the ways in which journalists were using the tool. They included beat reporting, watching how local communities decide what is news, real time content and photos, traceable leads and sources, information gathering, promotional, and archiving of expertise. But Kane also recognised the drawbacks: the balkanisation of truth, the 140 character design limitation, and the lack of collaboration. If true, that latter one seems to be a fault of the journalists rather than the tool. And interesting Kane was one of the few attendees to protect his Twitter updates.

Hopefully conferences like Media140 are doing their bit to correct the lack of collaboration. As for balkanisation, I'm not sure about turning the truth into Yugoslavia again, and I certainly believe the 140 character limitation is not a limitation but of one Twitter's main creative juices. It encourages ruthless succinctness. Everything from 141 characters onwards is a macroblog. Anyway, the next major Twitter event to watch for is Jeff Pulver’s #140conf in New York in mid June.

No comments: