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Twittering the news: DOs and DON'Ts

Twitter logoAmong the horde of Web 2.0 sites popping up each day, it seems the newest craze to emerge online is the Twitter social network. Very suddenly we are getting lots of questions about Twitter; people wanting to know what it is, how it works and most importantly how journalists can best use it in their newsrooms.

Well the first part is easy to answer, and I thought a blog post explaining what exactly Twitter is would be beneficial for our community. The second part however -- well that is a little more difficult to answer. Since Twitter is so new, we don't have any hard evidence or studies of how best to use it. But we do have lots of anecdotal evidence to suggest the sentiment of the Twitter community and what they want.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a type of "micro-blogging" similar to the status update on other sites like Facebook. Put simply, it's 140 characters explaining what a person is doing at any given time.

Twitter 'what are you doing?' form

When you sign up for a Twitter account, the first thing you will be presented with is a form and a large glowing title that reads: "What are you doing?" You have room for only a couple of sentences to describe anything you want. People who add your account to their "Twitter Feed" will see these updates as you post them. A specific Twitter post is called a "tweet."

The 140 character limit is important to note, because that is universally the maximum length of most cell phone SMS text messages. The Twitter service has functionality built into it that allows people to update their status by sending a text message to a short-code number. The idea that people can update their Twitter page anytime from anywhere is really what sets Twitter apart from say, a simple blog, Facebook or MySpace. Many sites like Facebook have similar services built into them, but the simplicity, portability and accessibility of Twitter has contributed to its quick rise.

(See "tweets" from around the world via TwitterVision.com

How to use Twitter

The easiest way to start Twittering is to sign up for a free account on their Web site http://twitter.com. From there you can also update your status, profile and mobile phone settings from the Web site.

Also contributing to Twitter's popularity is the ability to integrate Twitter with 3rd party programs. Various software programs have been built to allow people to both update their Twitter account and view their Twitter feeds. Some of these include desktop program or software for mobile devices.

A list of endorsed Twitter apps can be found on the Twitter site: http://twitter.com/downloads or on a user contributed wiki: http://twitter.pbwiki.com/Apps.

The way journalists shouldn't be using Twitter

Using Twitter -- as with most online services -- can best be done by using them for their intended purpose: telling people what you are doing.

With the rise of Twitter's popularity, many news organizations have jumped on the bandwagon by creating Twitter accounts. But, it seems all of these organizations have simply been filling their accounts with headlines from their publications. CNN, ABC News, MSNBC, NY Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other news organizations have created twitter accounts and post nothing more than the day's news headlines.

The only problem is, you can get this same information from their RSS Feed:

MSNBC Twitter account: http://twitter.com/msnbc 

MSNBC RSS Feed: http://rss.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032091/device/rss/rss.xml

Anyone with an RSS feed reader can get these headlines each day. Twittering the headlines defeats the social community aspect that Twitter offers. Twitter is so much more than just a simple feed reader to view headlines.

MSNBC Twitter Page

The NY Times realized they had too many headlines to fill a single account, so they formed several accounts for each section of the paper:

http://twitter.com/nyt_biz
http://twitter.com/nyt_sports
http://twitter.com/nyt_style
http://twitter.com/nyt_movies
http://twitter.com/nyt_arts
http://twitter.com/nyt_national
http://twitter.com/nyt_metro
http://twitter.com/nyt_books
http://twitter.com/nyt_science
http://twitter.com/nyt_health
http://twitter.com/nyt_travel
http://twitter.com/nyt_food
http://twitter.com/nyt_world
http://twitter.com/nyt_politics

Even one just on John Edwards' presidential campaign: http://twitter.com/nyt_johnedwards

Anyone who has used Twitter, knows that it is about more than just getting headlines. People who want NY Times headlines, would probably just visit the NY Times Web site. Why not?

Twitter is about getting updates on people and organizations you care about. This could include a link to a story, but only when the immediacy and newsworthiness of that story suggests informing the Twitter community. Twitter at its heart is about communication. Imagine coming to a party and saying, "Did you hear?" You wouldn't spout off every headline in the news, but just about the events that allow you to keep up with those around you.

Also, the one aspect that made Twitter so unique (and ironically is rarely used by news organizations) is the portability nature to "micro-blog." With a cell phone, you can take Twitter anywhere and inform the public about what you are doing.

The right way to use Twitter

It's simple, use it for what it was intended for; keeping people updating with what you're doing. This could be individual reporters twittering about what stories they are working on and the stories they have slated for the future release. Building community is always more powerful than simply adding another delivery point for the news. This level of transparency might cause unease for traditional journalists, but is at the very spirit of the online social movement.

The question we get asked a lot is, "who is using Twitter the right way?" Well, that's easy to answer, just look at the numbers.

MSNBC - 250 followers (They Twitter every headline)

CNN World - 789 followers (They Twitter every headline)

Barack Obama - 35,564 followers (Campaign Twitter's what he's doing)

Kevin Rose, editor of digg.com - 39,426 followers (Twitter's what he's doing)

Mars Phoenix Rover - 17,658 (NASA Twitter's what it's doing on Mars)

One exception is CNN "Breaking" News which only Twitters when there is an exceptional headline. Usually once every few days.

CNN Breaking News - 20,672 (Twitter occasionally when it's important)

In fact, CNN Breaking is the only mainstream news source to break into the top 100 twitter accounts. The others are mostly individuals. via twitterholic.com

Conclusion 

Hopefully this helps news organizations to understand and begin to experiment with the social aspects of Twitter. It's more than just news distribution (in much the same way the Web itself is more than just a distribution platform). News organizations need to understand the Web as a community.

Resources

35 Twitter Tips from 35 Twitter users

Four Types of Twitter users

Facts and Opinions about the Twitosphere

The Several Habits of Wildly Successful Twitter Users

Unofficial Twitter community Wiki

Twitter Vision, Tweets from around the globe