There are still Twitter deniers but it is time to acknowledge Twitter as the communications phenomenon of the modern world.
Last month Twitter passed a number of remarkable milestones – a fifth birthday celebration, more than 200 million users and around 1 billion of the 140 character messages now being sent every week.
Everyone apart, of course from those Twitter deniers, has got their own Twitter history. This hack of a certain age finally got it on May 21st 2009 with the help of a digitally literate son.
The first Tweet went: “ Question? How come nobody has been fired at The Times for turning down the scoop of the decade? Could it be the culprit was James Murdoch?”
Alas the answer to the question is still unknown although you never know because no-one ever did get fired – at least for that spectacular error of judgement. The decision, we can still deduce, must have been cleared by someone very senior in the organisation.
One thousand, two hundred and twenty two tweets later – most of them to do with observations about the media – and curiously the latest this morning (Wed) is also about The Times. A little bit of praise for the paper for giving a perfectly respectable page five lead to the alleged misdeeds of News of the World journalists as the phone hacking scandal gathers pace.
Cynics said in advance that it would be fun to watch how News International titles buried the story or perhaps ignored it altogether.
The Sun was more true to form with a mere 61 words in a single column on page 2 and there was no room to mention that the Sun is a sister paper of the News of the World.
The achievements of Twitter and the rest of the digital media and their impact on the traditional world are brought together in a new book published yesterday: The Internet and Journalism Today – Face The Future.
In it co-editor John Mair of Coventry University sets out his stall for all media organisations when he argues that “the status quo is on shifting sands; sticking to print or linear broadcasting is not an alternative in 2011. Like it or not, you have to face the future as a publisher, journalist, journalism educator or student.”
Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian and The Observer calls his contribution: “If you want to find out where (most) things happen first – go to Twitter.”
The bugbear of Rusbridger’s life are the people who still say that they just can’t stand Twitter and all that “inane stuff about what twits are having for breakfast.”
It may have started out like that, and there may even be a few breakfast fanatics still around but the more important reality is that Twitter has turned into “a highly effective way of spreading ideas, information and content.”
There is little doubt that when the final record is in Twitter and Facebook will be shown to have played a key role, alongside 24-hour television news, in mobilising the sudden outbursts of civil unrest and social revolutions in recent months in North Africa.
And forget about the limited 140-character scale of the tweets – they are often just the teaser linking in to much richer content elsewhere.
For the Guardian editor Twitter is a great reporting tool for searching for information and drawing on “the wisdom of crowds.”
And you can get the “crowds” to do some serious journalistic legwork for you – such as assigning up no less than 27,000 interested members of the public to sift through segments of the 400,000 records of MP’s expenses in the search for some hidden gems.
Then there is the student at Lincoln University who has used Freedom of Information data searches to see if there is a correlation between areas of the country where there is a high uptake of free school dinners – a measure of poverty – and Army recruiting activities. There was.
As for Twitter, Rusbridger is realistic. While being a great reporting tool it can also instantly bring the full weight of the world’s attention to a single piece of unstable, and possibly untrue, information.
And Twitter and social media should not be set on a pedestal on top of traditional media.
Kevin Marsh, outgoing executive editor of the BBC College of Journalism and editor of the Today programme during the Hutton, goes further.
Twitter is not journalism. The volume has just been turned up on the ambient noise that has always been with us.
You mustn’t confuse the tools with trade.
True journalism is what it has always been and should be – about inquisitiveness, bearing witness, narrative, poignant detail and a sense of the tragedy of human experience.
But above all else, according to Marsh, it is the sense that what journalists do matters. That it’s important “ that it’s different from gossip, chatter, rumour, prejudice: the sense that mere information – no matter how well disseminated – that mere data- no matter how well mined – are not enough.”
Marsh is right of course but it is equally true that Twitter is not going to go away.
On the other hand there is this thing called Quora, a social service for posing and answering questions, which is described as a cross between Twitter and Wikipedia…