Twitter. It seems like everyone’s doing it. From badgering celebrities to posting pictures of your cat, the social networking site has many uses. But the ability of Twitter to present us with a constant stream of information is starting to worry some. Traditional news outlets increasingly find themselves struggling to keep content relevant when faced with the immediacy of news updates on the site, where the 140-character limit ensures the release of stories isn’t delayed by a need for detail. In May 2013, PayPal’s CEO Peter Thiel predicted that Twitter would outlast the New York Times . For an industry with a still-uncertain future, it’s easy to see Twitter as the enemy.
But to do so would be to miss the benefits Twitter has to offer the tech-savvy journalist or news organisation. It is a great tool for leading readers to traditional media – master the art of the headline (in 140 characters or less), add a link, and your tweet can draw audiences to your news website, to stories with greater depth than a two-sentence tweet could ever offer. For journalists with the time to search it, Twitter is a hugely valuable mine of information and potential sources. And perhaps, most importantly, a well-maintained Twitter account is essential for the self-branding journalist, and for the brand image of news organisations as a whole – an image that can attract new audiences and inspire loyalty in old ones.
So Twitter should be seen as a tool for traditional media – not a sign of its demise. This sentiment is echoed by Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo, who sees Twitter as complementary to traditional news organisations, and hopes to work alongside them to distribute real-time information in future . It is also important to remember what Twitter can’t offer. The platform is open to anyone with an internet connection and something to say, but this democratisation of expression can also mean a deterioration in quality. There is no quality control on Twitter’s content; little or no in-depth analysis of news stories; and Twitter-as-a-news-source can be notoriously unreliable - for example, a group of hackers recently took over the Associated Press Twitter account and claimed that explosions at the White House had injured the President, causing the stock market to plummet 143 points before the truth was revealed .
Examples like this do, however, show the power that Twitter has to affect significant change in the real world. It is in this arena that Twitter perhaps has an advantage over traditional media. The role of Twitter in the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2010 and 2011 was complex - but certainly important. Similarly, Twitter is playing an important role far beyond that of traditional media in the riots currently happening in Turkey – as news outlets have been instructed by the government to stay silent on all anti-government demonstrations, protestors have taken to Twitter en masse, reporting in real-time on events that really concern them .
Twitter is democratic in its potential to cover stories neglected by news agencies, and in the power it gives users to dictate what stories spread through discussion, retweets and favourites. By collating information from hundreds of news sources, only the stories the reader – who is no longer a passive recipient of the news – deems interesting are pursued; as such Twitter, and other social networking sites, necessitate that traditional media outlets pay fresh attention to what content is successful, as well as providing new ways of measuring success.
Overall it seems that people need not be turning to Twitter to replace their traditional news sources but to complement them, and to access a wider range of information, gathered in one place. For the audience short on time and attention span, Twitter may satisfy a demand for immediacy, but somebody reading a ‘traditional’ news story is investing time to gain proper understanding – even in a digital age, immediacy is not always the winner. Twitter has many advantages, but it offers a very different service to that of its traditional media counterpart. If traditional media outlets are able to properly utilise Twitter, and take note of the access it gives to the mass of opinions of the increasingly active reader, there seems no reason that the two can’t exist in harmony for a little while longer.