It was Jeff Houck, the Tampa Tribune’s food writer and early social media adopter, who called me out when I recently followed him on Twitter.
“Eight tweets in 29 months? You Twitter slut,’’ he wrote.
OK, I admit it – I have not exactly had a love affair with Twitter.
I’ve had an account for nearly three years, and it has been as lonely as the Maytag repairman. I started it, as many newspaper editors did, so I wouldn’t be a total hypocrite about social media. But then I proceeded to behave like a social media hypocrite any way.
I don’t know what it is about Twitter that put me off. It isn’t that I hate all social media. I became a Facebook addict from the minute my husband persuaded me to create a profile. In fact, he often scolds me more than we do our teenagers about my need to step away from Facebook and join him here in the real world.
Twitter always felt disjointed to me. Where Facebook felt like narrative, Twitter left me feeling like I was drowning in a sea of disparate conversational threads.
I understood that I needed to think of it as a police scanner, one that could alert me to things I would be interested in if I only took the time to tune it. Even using aids like TweetDeck to help me manage the streams seemed more than my mind could take in.
But I am diving in with the enthusiasm of the converted now. A few factors tipped the scale in persuading me to reconsider Twitter.
The obvious one is the revolutions in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt. Watching events ebb and flow, and seeing how much of the story was unfolding in real time through Twitter, made me want to dive back into the stream. Any good journalist wants to have a front seat at the big story. My irrational Twitter fear was keeping me from the front seat. I felt left out, and I wanted to get in.
So I’ve been doing what I always do when I want to get in to a conversation and I’m feeling a little shy about it: I’ve been listening and trying to learn. Egypt is such an amazing study in the richness of social media, and the proliferation of tools and practitioners who are helping to weave the larger picture out of individual threads.
I’ve been especially impressed with the amazing curation effort of NPR’s Andy Carvin, who tracked the revolution through Twitter almost non-stop. His Twitter feed became one of the richest real-time repositories of what was happening, creating an intimacy and a “you-are-there’’ feeling. Carvin says that curation has always been a fundamental part of journalism; I would argue that, done well, it is the very essence of journalism, the best part of journalism. And I’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of that than Carvin’s work using Twitter.
Just as I was growing obsessed with the events in Egypt, Rusty and I were delving deeper into a project with a client to heat map Twitter dialogue around local issues. This work involves tuning tools to track public sentiment and evolving opinion by using Twitter to map conversational threads. We’re following a municipal election solely using these tools, and we’re pretty sure we are going to be able to predict some outcomes – perhaps with more reliability than through conventional polling.
Finally, I have been using Twitter as a tool to help me understand the challenges of the entrepreneurial journalists I meet as last September’s Block by Block Community News Summit. As part of my work with The Patterson Foundation, I’ve been helping consultant Michele McLellan provide some tools to help this community develop.
On Monday, I participated in a Block by Block Twitter chat – the first time I’d done a chat like this. And it was marvelous! Watching members of the community answer each other’s questions and provide guidance to those seeking solutions, in real time, was quite amazing.
It was during this chat that I realized the real error of my ways with Twitter. I’ve been looking at the individual strands of dialogue. Instead, I should have been seeing those pieces as part of a rich, conversational DNA strand. From those strands, the whole organism emerges – but you have to be willing to watch it build.
And what journalist wouldn’t want a front-row seat at that spectacle?