Tuesday, May 03, 2011

From 140 characters to infinity...

21 years ago, the first Gulf War changed television and radio reporting for ever. CNN - not exactly storming ahead in its field - grew in stature and reputation with its one groundbreaking concept. Suddenly their raison d'etre made sense. Newspapers had the content, but did they have the reaction speeds, depth of commentary and instant replay? CNN defined and justified television news, something we now take for granted. Twenty-one years is a lifetime in broadcasting, and from CNN all those years ago, May 2011 has witnessed the next great revolution in news reporting. It has come not from the "mainstream" media (of which, arguably, CNN is now firmly part), or even the "first generation" Internet names. For this month saw Twitter justify its reputation and support amongst thousands of loyal users, in addition to getting grudging respect from the news organisations it has ultimately usurped.

This tweet is the iconic symbol of Twitter's "maturity moment". The one man - Sohaib Athar - inadvertently became the poster boy for all that the live-tweeting, micro-blogging site could offer the world. Real time, uncensored, un-monitored reporting of events, often innocent and natural, more often than not trivial, all of which could be the snowballs to roll down and create headlines. Twitter was always a curiosity, and in many ways it has become much more one now, though it has also given the Internet the shine of respectability it needed in the field of news. Just as CNN did in the 90s, now Twitter has shown the credible side of its quirky selling point.

Twitter began to buzz with news that President Obama would be making a very serious announcement at 2145 Eastern Time (about 0230/0300 GMT). Thirty minutes later, Keith Urbahn, the former chief of staff for Bush's Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted his exclusive .

"So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn."


Between 2145 and 2215, Twitter was alive with rumours, jokes, repeated jokes, claims, and counter-claims. The Twitter organisation itself reported that by the time President Obama was confirming the news - over an hour and twenty minutes later - 6,000 messages a second were being written with his name. That totals countless millions sent in the period from the initial rumour to the rolling MSM analysis.

Twitter has been the place to go for so-called "live tweeting" or "dual screening" for some time now. In the UK, episodes of The Apprentice, Match of the Day, or even Great British Menu, can be enjoyed by watching thousands of viewers giving thumbs up or down whilst the show is on air. Writer Mark Gatiss has said watching programmes he has written (such as Doctor Who) with Twitter on his phone "would drive him mad". Soon-enough feedback (the notices and reviews in next day's papers) has now become
instant, running parallel to the programme itself. The "Osama day" on Twitter went one step further - effectively running ahead of the news agenda and laughing when traditional television journalists jogged towards them sweating and panting.

The Mumbai bombings was the first real event which suggested Twitter's potential. CNN, ironically enough, commented on how the programme was "ahead" of them, with the news-gatherer having to be careful with every detail and source it received. With little filtering (and no checking for repeated jokes), Twitter can forge ahead where broadcasters rarely can tread. Whilst this is an issue, it's also a bonus. No filtering, no censuring - the most gruesome of videos and the most belly-hurting jokes, all streaming down the news-feed in a collection of views, news and opinions. During the anti-cuts marches in London, protesters used Twitter and Suki to plan sites to gather and police hotspots to avoid. Whilst watching the UK's first ever leaders debates, the "Iagreewithnick" meme blossomed into a T-shirt slogan and backhanded compliment.

Internet historians like to mark exactly when new phenomena or language became popular. Who wanted their kittens to speak in Creole first? When did someone first notice the bloke who couldn't carry all his limes? When did emos start taking photographs at funny angles, and where did they go before tumblr? 2 May 2011 is the cyber-historians newest milestone. It's the day newsgathering and reporting became something new - deeper whilst still giddy, stronger though unpredictable. Years after having its existence questioned by critics and sceptics, the newest darling of the 2.0 generation has grown into a very lucrative (and beautiful) swan. From the alternative to status updates, to the latest version of ticker tape...And I still find the time to update people on how crowded the 1647 Leyland service back home is every workday.