There’s no point in wasting any more time — or text characters. I’m making it official and declaring this season the Summer of Twitter.
You can thank me later.
The declaration isn’t just related to the short message service’s use regarding some of the biggest breaking news stories of the past three months, including the Iranian protests and Michael Jackson’s death. It also isn’t just about those stories that have Twitter as a central character, so to speak: the cybertheft of internal Twitter company documents, their delivery to the TechCrunch blog and their subsequent posting therein (news ethics police, line 1), or this week’s Horizon Realty story in Chicago, which featured a tenant tweeting about mold in her apartment, a Horizon lawsuit that followed and questions about whether a tweet can be defamatory (First Amendment experts, line 2).
It isn’t even about the mainstream media Twitter backlash that so far hasn’t sent the technology flying beak-first into the dustbin of irrelevant application history. They don’t realize it yet, but Conan O’Brien, with his hilarious “Twitter Tracker” segments on the “Tonight Show,” and David Letterman’s “Late Night” grumpy grandpa bit with Kevin Spacey a couple of weeks ago are simply prolonging their social media saturation agony. (O’Brien’s skits are devastatingly on-target, by the way, in demonstrating there’s more than one way to both satirize celebrity misuse of Twitter and send an animated Twitter bird logo off to its death.)
No, I’m matching the hottest season of the year with the hottest social media method of the moment because of what’s going on right now in a University of Washington classroom. It’s just one of many other examples, I’m sure, of college students and their instructors around the country determined to study Twitter’s impact on communications (you may recall in a July 6 column how I told you about a spring semester project at Toronto’s Ryerson University focusing on Twitter and breaking news situations).
The students, as you might expect, are paving the way for the next generation of communicators, be they in news or business. And you have to hand it to them; they’re spending their summer looking at Twitter when they could be out having fun, getting together with friends, earning extra cash — and looking at Twitter.
The Twitter Book
Kathy E. Gill is an instructor for what is a very dynamic digital media program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Sure, you might expect UW to blaze the trail here, with all those role models handy at nearby Amazon, Microsoft, Real Networks and the tech entrepreneurial community. But my previous reporting and columns about the university’s embrace of digital media and its potential can provide some comfort when the hype about the disruptive, destructive effects of Web 2.0 on business can get to be too much.
“Our real goal is for my students to learn about the new technologies by being immersed in the new technologies,” Gill told me. “The second goal is for us to then take that knowledge and make it available to other people so that they have the benefit of our research and expertise.”
Hence the Twitter Book, the summer semester project for Gill’s class. Each member of the class has chosen an industry segment — airlines, health care (another hot topic this summer, I hear), restaurants, media, government, etc., and tries to tease out the best practices for social media use in each venue. They will then list examples of how a particular company or governmental entity is using Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the like to enhance the connection with customers/citizens.
Exhibit A in the “we grok social media” category: the Washington Department of Transportation. A new director hired in 2006 meant a new willingness to consider social media. It started with a blog, then major bridge construction in Tacoma brought a Flickr account for photo-sharing and a Twitter account for breaking news on construction-related delays. Now, Gill says, other states are calling Washington DOT for advice on social media.
Gill hopes to get the book out via self-publishing, Kindle and PDF. “I can also see a Web site that supports the book being used with bigger classes,” she said. “Those resources should continue to grow. Originally, I was telling everyone that this is a one-off project, we won’t do this again, and then as we got deeper into it, I was saying, ‘Well, that’s for book No. 2.’
“I have created a monster in the sense that the students were so excited about the project, and the more we talked about potentialities, the bigger the project grew,” she said. “We knew there was no way we could do it in 10 weeks.”
The News Angle
When it comes to the news portion of Gill’s summer class, a couple of the guest speakers have been previously mentioned in this column; Tracy Record’s West Seattle Blog, Monica Guzman and her “Big Blog” at seattlepi.com. The usual memes were presented to the students; social media breaks down barriers between reporter and reader, digital technologies are decentralizing the news business, the power relationship has changed.
I found it interesting that a reporter’s Twitter account or blog comment thread has an antecedent in traditional media ways. “They are building mini-brands, personal brands, that relate to their profession, but that’s what a byline does,” Gill says. “This is in many ways an extension of the byline that we already associate with written news, or the newscaster’s face which we associate with television news.”
The egalitarian aspects of digital media are what many news people find threatening. Gill’s advice (and yes, you’ve heard it here before): Get over it.
“It’s a change, and most people don’t like change even when we say we do,” laughs Gill. “It’s understandable, but what troubles me is that when people are so glued to their current way of thinking that they’re not even willing to budge an inch. I don’t think we have that luxury in an industry that is directly impacted by digital technologies. Life here is changing so fast, faster than anything in human history, that we don’t have the luxury to sit and say, ‘I don’t like it, we’re not going to do it,’ because you’re going to get run over by the train.”
The news media needs to capture the passion and entrepreneurial spirit associated with the building of new, potentially game-changing tech companies. But there also needs to be a transfer of old-school values, especially when it comes to Twitter’s role in breaking news, Gill said.
“Reporters aren’t going to be the only ones breaking stories anymore. People are going to break stories by whoever happens to be there with a camera phone. Your job (as a reporter) is changing to provide context and verification, and it’s a totally different kind of verification than we have normally done,” she said.
Gill also says our educational system — in fact, our entire culture — has to do a better job of helping people navigate the ideological passions on display in the media. “We have to do a much better job of helping people understand that news is no longer a full-attendant service station. It’s self-serve, and you have to figure out which is the right grade for your tank. You have to figure out which news sources are credible and right. I didn’t have to do that before, but that old model is gone.”
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.