October 29, 2011

Twitter and The News

I came to the Twitter party later than many, and I came with a bad attitude. As an outsider, I saw social media as a huge waste of both time and computing power. I really don't care what kind of mint is lying on your hotel pillow or when you are going to walk your dog. As a social media outsider, I saw it as distracting, indiscriminate, and overwhelming. Yes, I read that Egyptian revolutionaries leveraged the power of instant messages, Twitter, and Facebook to effect regime change in under three weeks. And in China, social networking has helped spread the word about environmental issues and mobilize protests against polluters. But, their media is heavily censored and so they are forced to look elsewhere for their news. And, when it comes to Twitter, I mean forced. Why would you choose to limit your message to 140 characters? The amount of information in a tweet is not worth the time spent looking at it.

That was two weeks ago. Now I think that a hefty chunk of what we used to call journalism already revolves around Twitter. My opinion changed on Tuesday, October 25, 2011, the day of the Occupy Oakland violence.

I got to my computer at around 9am, and reluctantly brought up a Twitter window. It had been about a week, since I set up my Twitter account. I had acquired 29 followers and was following 129 others. This meant that I would be deluged with hundreds of short messages, many without useful context, and a few of potential interest. I immediately noticed that there were lots of tweets about Occupy Oakland. It sounded like the police had assaulted protesters with rubber bullets, flash grenades, and gas canisters. Now mind you, it was 9am Eastern Time, but only 6am in Oakland. I spent about twenty minutes trying to verify this news via the internet. Some of the tweets pointed to videos that people had posted online, but it was dark out and hard to really make out what was going on with all the mayhem. As it dawned in Oakland, it dawned on me that I knew more about what had just happened in Oakland than most of the world, including those living in Oakland!

This was real-time news and it was not an accident. When I set up the Twitter account, Karen Brown, CEO of StardustBlue Media , advised me to follow a few major news outlets and many local Occupy Wall Street groups. By doing this, I created a specialized news community of sorts. One focused on Occupy activities around the globe. Something big under the Occupy umbrella would reverberate due to tweets and retweets echoing within my personal community news "channel".

I considered helping to break this news in my blog, OccupyMyCity. After about an hour pondering the many ethical questions that surfaced for me, I decided not to report anything, until later in the day. I was hoping that someone from the mainstream media, the City of Oakland or the Oakland Police Department would say something official. What could I verify sitting so far away in Florida. I waited a few hours without hearing anything from those in authority. I went ahead and posted on my blog, but indicated that there might be a difference of opinion about who did what when.

The tweets grew over the course of the afternoon. The Occupiers were regrouping and planning to take back the area. There were various broadcasts of what was going on around the City. I didn't watch a single mainstream news report. Instead, I relied on citizen tweets linking me to disturbing videos of their fellow citizens being attacked by police. I was appalled.

But others were watching the live feeds from the likes of ABC and CBS. Lili Loofbourow, a writer living in Oakland, wrote of her experience:

... When the ABC livefeed went down, everyone watching switched. Then the CBS feed turned into a picture of the Capitol. To sum up: the only two mainstream media live-feeds switched off at precisely the same instant—the minute before fifteen police departments working together engulfed a peaceful group of protesters in tear gas.

That crucial minute, when the media (whether by accident or in compliance with police orders) enabled the police to tear-gas peaceful American citizens untelevised...

Ms. Loofbourow is very engaging in her first-person account of how she found herself sitting with a group of adults in Occupy Oakland seriously debating policy as if their decision made a difference.

I surmise that there were news helicopters hovering, waiting for a story, and then when the story came ... a deafening silence. Ms. Loofbourow's account looks like censorship. I don't tend to harbor conspiracy theories, but, I am unnerved at the precision with which this story did not break.

Until today, I did not understand Twitter's role in the news business. Now I know that it is an excellent tool to monitor and deliver news. And in the face of censorship, it may work better than the corporate media.

Sources: The AWL


  1. Ok - like you I've avoided Twitter as a joke of our times but your article has convinced me to join up. And I make a living with computers and the Internet so it's not like I'm a technophobe. Still, it is Twitter this and Twitter that these days, isn't it?

  2. I too felt the same way about Twitter. I started using it as a tool to promote my new business. I was told by a very successful PR person that this is the way of the world. And she's right, but I still do it kicking and screaming. Like you, I sometimes don't care about the minutia of MY life, let alone that of people I don't know. You, on the other hand, have found it's global benefit. Wow. I see it's power. Fantastic stuff Diane. Thank you for helping show us what's going on. Now, what's your Twitter name so I can follow?

  3. On Twitter, you can follow me at OccupyMySoapbox.

    Even though I see its power, I am still deciding how much I want to use Twitter.