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Twitter becoming a personal news wire

By C.J. CASTILLO
Aug. 9, 2008 at 3:09 a.m.
Updated Nov. 4, 2009 at 5:04 a.m.


When major events occur, most of us turn to the mainstream media for news updates. Whether it be from network or cable television, online news sources or radio, we tend to expect the media to be the first on the scene.

But on July 29, an unconventional source was the first to break the news about the earthquake that struck southern California.

This source was Twitter.com, a social networking site powered by user-generated content. Within moments of the quake, users on Twitter were spreading the news of the rumblings around LA, beating The Associated Press to the punch by 9 minutes.

Twitter users create what could be considered mini-blogs, with entries that are limited to 140 characters, thus allowing posters to quickly inform others what they are doing. Twitter postings are called “tweets” and other users that subscribe to your updates are called “followers.”

Users can post updates from Twitter’s Web site, or by instant messaging and text messaging via cell phone. Typical tweets could include anything from rants over waiting too long in line at the movie theater, commenting on conversations overheard in public and tips on traffic.

Created in March 2006, Twitter garnered much attention a year later at the South by Southwest conference in Austin.

I contacted Omar L. Gallaga, technology culture writer for the Austin American-Statesman, and via e-mail he wrote, “I started using Twitter in March of ’07 and saw it really take off during that year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival. The fest really showed off the potential of the technology as people posted updates of where they were and what they were doing. It was ubiquitous by the following year at the fest.”

Most Twitterers probably aren’t signing up in hopes of becoming the next Woodward and Bernstein. But Twitter’s simplicity and real-time access does allow for users to quickly distribute news. Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder, wrote on Twitter’s blog that “Twitter is increasingly being described as a personal news wire.”

Many news agencies have embraced the potential of Twitter as a reporting tool and have encouraged their staff to create Twitter accounts.

I have been following the tweets of several Victoria Advocate staffers. Erica Smith, a journalist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, keeps track of these accounts on her blog at graphicdesignr.net. The numbers Smith posted for July showed 303 newspaper Twitter accounts.

I asked Gallaga for his thoughts on how the media would utilize Twitter and he wrote, “I think some traditional news outlets will embrace Twitter while others will abandon it when they don’t get the results they think they deserve from their time investment. There are lots of clever people in the journalism industry and the smart ones will figure out how to utilize Twitter the way good news organizations have built strong voices in their blogs or deployed user-generated content/citizen journalism.”

As Twitter gains popularity, it has suffered through many growing pains and crashes due to the overabundance of incoming tweets.

Most Twitter veterans take these interruptions in stride, while others (OK, me) fall to the ground in agony when they see the “fail whale” – the image of a Beluga whale that appears on Twitter’s site during downtime.

Fail whales aside, it will be interesting to watch the role of Twitter as a social networking and reporting tool. Now, excuse me, I just made some toast and must tweet about it now.

CJ Castillo writes about technology for the Victoria Advocate. Questions about all things tech or gifts of toasted bread can be e-mailed to digitalbabble@gmail.com or sent care of Victoria Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77902.

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