Twitter's Challenge to the Media

20 Jun 2009

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Twitter's been around for two years and is currently experiencing explosive growth as an online social networking tool. It is second in popularity only to Facebook.

The number of people using Twitter has risen from just two million to 20 million in the past year. These are not just people using the tool to stay in touch with friends (many are), but a key trend that is emerging is Twitter's ability to take citizen journalism to new heights.

Due to the format of the tool (short messages limited to 140 characters) and its ease of use via cell phones, people are able to disseminate short bursts of information extremely quickly.

"Twitter is very quickly becoming the world's real time search leader,” says Chris Sacca, a Twitter business advisor. 

With millions of people tweeting about topical events, Twitter also paints a fuller picture when news stories break.

This Listening Post clip refers to the Mumbai attacks where international audiences followed "tweets" on Twitter to gain a better understanding of the context of the crisis in the early hours after the attack.

Twitter and citizen journalism also play an important role in situations where repressive regimes obstruct the work of traditional journalists, such as when Israel prevented the World's media from entering Gaza during its attack on the strip in January this year.

More recently, the contentious Iranian election has dominated international news headlines, in large part, due to Twitter. Iranian students and bloggers have effectively used the service to disseminate information, which would otherwise have been trapped inside the country.

However, Twitter is not without its flaws. It is a viral messaging tool, which means that misinformation can also spread very quickly, as it did with the recent outbreak of Swine Flu, creating a mass hysteria that was quite unnecessary.

Traditional media outlets, it seems, are exercising caution when using Twitter as a news source, but certainly seem to have embraced the tool as a medium for disseminating news headlines.

Twitter's success lies in the enormous audience it brings to users. CNN has more than a million followers on Twitter. While the UK's Sky News has even employed its own Twitter correspondent.

Twitter currently poses a challenge to the media because of its ability to "break" news much faster than traditional news outlets. One is able to get basic facts really quickly through Twitter, says Sacca.

Moreover, despite the fact that traditional news outlets are capitalizing on the huge audiences following Twitter, the most imminent threat for them is that these huge audiences could just as easily follow alternative news and information sources on Twitter. While not the preferred example, Ashton Kutcher's Twitter popularity challenge to CNN is a case in point.

When all is said and done, the jury is still out on whether Twitter will continue towering over the media. For the moment, its star is on the rise.

Editor's Note: You can also follow SACSIS news headlines on Twitter

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/145.19.

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