I did this online journalism-related write-up last week for Spiegel International. It didn’t run there, so I’m posting it here (with permission, of course):
When a 71-year-old pensioner killed three people and wounded a fourth in a shooting spree last month in North Rhine-Westphalia, the police response unfolded in real time on Twitter. A user of the microblogging site, who was listening in on official radio communications taking place at the scene in the town of Schwalmtal, posted a running report of the suspect’s standoff with authorities.
The Twitter account was soon deleted, but not before much of user @JO31DH’s minute-by-minute account was repeated in blogs and other Twitter posts: “1 confirmed dead in rampage. … The commando unit has arrived on site … The forces will move to Hermmann-Löh Street in Amern … The helicopter is on Pletschweg … News channel N24 is also in Schwalmtal now.”
While listening in on police radio transmissions is legal in some countries, including the United States, it is forbidden in Germany and carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment.
In the midst of the two-hour standoff, with reports coming in that the suspect had taken hostages, Philipp Ostrop, an editor at RuhrNachrichten.de, tweeted, “If there’s really a hostage situation in Schwalmtal, can the perpetrator follow along with @JO31DH on what the police are up to? Is that such a good thing?”
Other posts warned the user that what he was doing was illegal.
The anonymous twitterer claimed protection as a journalist: “I call myself the press. That’s enough… Now shut up.”
The next day the would-be journalist posted a contrite message on his blog (now also offline but quoted by the Rheinische Post): “I would like to formally apologize. I see, in spite of everything, how these social networks can be misused. I don’t feel good about this. I hope things will soon settle down and others won’t repeat this stupid idea.”
The newspaper later reported that authorities had identified the Twitter user and would file criminal charges. According to police, the man did not threaten the operation because the commando unit on the scene was using secure mobile phones to communicate.
People (and particularly media people) here are crazy about Twitter. Simple observation suggests the microblogging phenomenon is even bigger here than it is in the U.S., and the stats seem to bear that out.
But why is Twitter so big here? One possible explanation, offered by social media consultant Suw Charman-Anderson (aka @suw), is the enthusiastic use of the tool by some big-name Brits. To wit:
- Ahead of Sunday night’s BAFTAs, host Jonathan Ross sought suggestions from his Twitter followers for a random word he could work into his hosting shtick. (Before the show started he announced on Twitter that the word would be “salad” — and yes, he did use it in the show.)
- A popular morning TV presenter, Phillip Schofield, declared his love for Twitter on national television a couple weeks ago, prompting PaidContent UK to ask whether this was Twitter’s “tipping point”.
- And then there’s last week’s Stephen-Fry-in-the-elevator saga, which I mentioned in my previous post.
In the newspaper industry here, lots of people are twittering, and not just casually. Just ask @foodiesarah (Sarah Hartley, online editor for the Manchester Evening News), @alisongow (Alison Gow, deputy editor of the Liverpool Daily Post), @kevglobal (Kevin Anderson, blogs editor for The Guardian and spouse of the aforementioned @suw) and @joannageary (Joanna Geary, development editor at the Birmingham Post). Joanna’s boss, @marcreeves (Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Post), even has his Twitter URL on his business card. How many American newspaper editors could say the same?
As development editor — a role that includes overseeing the newspaper’s efforts in social media — Joanna managed to get the Post to devote occasional space in the paper to explaining Twitter. Tapping her Twitter network, she organized a group of reader experts to act as unpaid bloggers on a variety of topics (see the authors of the Lifestyle blog for a sampling). And, job seekers take note: Her avid Twittering is no doubt partly responsible for her new gig at The Times of London, which starts next month.
The Birmingham Post isn’t the only U.K. newspaper to spill ink about Twitter: The Daily Telegraph went so far as to publish a full Twitter guide, including step-by-step instructions on how to tweet and a piece on “why the world is Twitter-crazy.” (That may be overreaching a little: It’s worth pointing out that Twitter is by one measure only the 23rd most visited social network in the U.K., but apparently all social networks are not created equal.)
I should also note that, while the rate of Twitter adoption here is high, usage doesn’t necessarily correlate with understanding. For a particularly embarrassing illustration of this, here’s a cautionary tale from the BBC: Multimedia newsroom boss Peter Horrocks last week sent what he thought was a direct message on Twitter to a colleague, Richard Sambrook, discussing some high-level appointments. Except he sent it as an @-reply, visible to the candidates being discussed, along with the unsuccessful candidates and everybody else in the world for that matter. Ouch.
Also: London is the birthplace of the Twestival, a social gathering of Twitter users that has turned into a global event. (The next Twestival is this Thursday, Feb. 12, in 175 cities around the world. Unfortunately, the London Twestival is sold out, so if I’m going I guess I’ll have to find another city.) And… There’s even an online Twitter newspaper here, the All Tweet Journal. Points for the name, at the very least.
I’ve been in the U.K. for about a week now — long enough to feel guilty for neglecting my blogging duties, but not long enough to really get my head around what’s going on over here.
I was in Preston last week for the Journalism Leaders Programme at the University of Central Lancashire, where I met journalists from Europe and Africa and heard some familiar stories about change-averse newsroom culture. I also visited newsrooms in Liverpool and Birmingham and listened as editors described the very real changes taking place there.
Some trends I’ve observed in the process:
- Twitter is huge here.
- British newspapers, to my surprise, seem to be hurting just as badly as their American counterparts.
- Some leaders are reacting to the crisis creatively and urgently.
- Others are still in denial.
In posts over the next few days, I’ll try to elaborate on each of those points. Meanwhile, here are some happenings in the U.K. media world that have spawned dinner-table conversation in the past week:
- News organizations (and their audiences) mobilize to cover the Great Blizzard of 2009 (as I have taken to calling the few inches of snow that paralyzed London last week).
- Humorist Stephen Fry gets stuck in a London elevator and tweets the entire ordeal for his 100,000+ followers.
- BBC business editor (and blogger) Robert Peston is grilled by MPs in a government inquiry over whether the media contributed to the financial crisis.
Photo by Charles Collier via Flickr
I wanted to use Dopplr to make a pretty map for the itinerary, but I find its interface a little too constraining. At some point I’ll figure out how to make it do what I want, but in the meantime a boring outline will have to do.
By now a lot of people in the media have discovered how to use Twitter as a promotional tool, judging from the growing number of auto-generated messages populating (polluting?) the Tweetstream.
But I think relatively few journalists are actually listening to what the community is saying. Which is a shame, because this is our audience talking. And the conversation is often more transparent, more sincere and more insightful than what you see on news sites’ forums and comment boards.
(I should note that I’m a relative Twitter novice, and I welcome the opportunity to get schooled if I’m totally off base in what I’m about to say.)
It’s like a big caffeine party. Everybody’s talking at once. Really fast.
But you have magic ears.
You only hear the people you want to listen to, and the people who are saying something directly to you.
That is Twitter’s great promise, but it’s also where I think the microblogging behemoth comes up short. Because two things happen when you’re listening only to the people you want to hear:
- They say a lot of things you don’t care about.
- You miss all the good stuff they’re not talking about.
So, how can journalists separate the useful stuff from the chatter on Twitter? There are some technological answers to this question. Here are a few I’ve found:
- Twitter advanced search: Sure, everybody knows about Twitter search, but the advanced search options can be a pretty effective way to cut through the noise. For a simple example, try this: earthquake near:”Los Angeles” within:15mi (The geographic search makes use of the place name that users set in their profiles as a geotag for each of their tweets. Imperfect, but it’s a start.)
- TwitScoop: See what’s trending in real time. In the future, I imagine a local version of this (limited to tweets in a particular geographic area) on a big display on the wall of every newsroom.
- TweetDeck: A beautiful app (built with Adobe Air, for good compatibility karma) that lets you follow multiple subsets of the tweetstream (your replies, custom searches, etc.) in real time. If you cover a beat, why not set up a few custom searches on the topics you follow and see what people are saying?
And then there are some things I wish I could do with Twitter that, as far as I know, aren’t possible yet. Here’s this journalist’s wish list for Twitter and third-party developers:
- Better geographic tools, so it’s easier for tweeters to update their location and for searchers to filter geographically. Community news sites could benefit from this.
- The ability to create running searches across a subset of Twitter users. Let’s say you cover technology and are following a few key sources and want to know whenever one of your sources posts about Yahoo. There might be a tool that enables this, and if so, maybe somebody can enlighten me.
- The ability to find conversations that mention a particular URL. Seems like it would be useful (and not just for ego purposes) to know what people are saying about the content you create. Twitturly does a good job of showing which URLs are most popular overall, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t let you specify a URL to examine.
So, what are your techniques for separating signal from noise on Twitter? And while you’re at it, what would you add to the wish list?
Incidentally, if you’re new to the Twitter thing, here are some good posts to get you going. And for a contrarian point of view on the whole signal-to-noise thing, check out Scoble. (Or, maybe he’s mainstream and I’m the contrarian? [Shudder])
What happens when you put a bunch of bloggers in a room, feed them pizza and moderate a discussion on their craft? You end up with two real-time conversations: One in the physical room and the other in the Twitterverse.
I know that’s no surprise to those who populate this corner of cyberspace, but as a newbie here — and, until recently, an admitted Twitter skeptic — I have to say it was pretty fun to watch a virtual dialogue unfold alongside the real-world one, as it did last Thursday night at the Los Angeles Times.
The local ONA gathering on blogging (pix here) drew about 60 people to the Harry Chandler Auditorium for an informal talk with L.A. bloggers including Luke Ford (pictured) and the Times’ Andrew Malcolm. Tweets containing #onala were displayed in a search feed on the big screen, powered by a nifty skinnable Twitter client called Spaz. Instant visual backchannel!
So yes: Twitter is good for something besides marriage proposals.
Photo by David LaFontaine via Flickr.