18 March 2009

A misinformed news article on the usage of Twitter by local police

What's of interest in this article isn't the fact that local police have announced that they're going to be using Twitter to inform the public, as that's something that's occurring with regular frequency around the nation.

What is of interest in this article is the extremely poor journalism in the description and explanation of what Twitter is:

This is the text of the article, written by Terence Corcoran, a journalist for the The Journal News, a regional newspaper published by Gannett--the folks who bring you newspapers such as USA Today:
Peekskill police have joined Twitter, an online community that serves as a venue for people to communicate through brief messages that are dispersed via e-mail and text messaging, Lt. Eric Johansen said today.

Members of Twitter are able to post messages that contain less than 140 characters. They can be viewed by people who have signed up to receive them on their mobile telephones and e-mail accounts.

While the service was originally designed as a social-networking tool, it is also used by large businesses as well as celebrities and musicians.

Johansen said police see it as a way to keep the public informed on everything from road closures and accidents as well as major incidents.

Access to Twitter is available by signing up at www.twitter.com, which is provided free to those who send and/or receive information.
Here's the e-mail that I sent to Mr. Corcoran:

Regarding your article, Peekskill police join Twitter to provide updates to public, you really should do a bit more research before you start talking about things like Twitter. It is disingenuous to describe Twitter as an "on-line community" when it is much, much more than that.

First and foremost, Twitter is, in its simplest form, a tool used for communication. Twitter is wondrous tool by which information can be collected and disseminated (which is why police departments around the nation have begun using Twitter).

Tweets (the 140-character messages that users create) can be viewed by anyone via the web, regardless of one's status of owning a Twitter account. Tweets and @replies (@replies are tweets made in response to a certain user's particular tweet) aren't usually delivered to one's e-mail account, unless one is using a third-party application, plug-in, or widget.

What does the usage by celebrities, large businesses, and musicians have to do with Twitter being a social networking "tool"? Twitter is still a Web 2.0 application; the usage of a Web 2.0 application--especially WHO uses it--doesn't change what it is. While Twitter is becoming perhaps a de-facto method of distributing and collecting information for a number of different groups such as marketers, celebrities, government officials, politicians, and those who advocate for social change, that doesn't change what it is: a communications tool.

What is significant is that a culture is being created around Twitter; Twitter has its own language, code of conduct (there's virtually no such thing as "too much information" on Twitter), and celebrity status (traditional celebrities aren't necessarily important on Twitter; there are a great number of "everyday people" who rank far greater in importance than most of the traditional celebrities, as far as Twitter is concerned. Twitter's methodology has gotten such web giants as Facebook to incorporate major Twitter-esque changes to the way they present information and allow users to interact.

Perhaps the effectiveness of Twitter to communicate information (as demonstrated by tweets about the landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River appearing a good 20 minutes before any news organization had information and started running stories (even on Twitter)) has scared traditional news media outlets into degrading and downplaying the importance of Twitter. Twitter may just be the biggest threat to the way in which traditional news media disseminates information, as it places the power of information into the hands of the people who receive it, not those who wish to disseminate it.