Where were you when you first heard of Twitter?

9 November 2013

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

Twitter’s  secret

The launch of Twitter on the New York Stock Exchange has been one of the most significant events of the week, and not only for its above expectation result, which set the price per share at nearly twice the initial public offering. Twitter is not the first social network to land on Wall Street, but it is definitely the one on which have been placed the most expectations and curiosity, considering its birth (an idea that came from a sketch), its development, its disarming simplicity and the way it became crucial for the media in general, and attractive to users, getting one of the major means of finding and sharing news. Paul Ford of Bloomberg Businessweek explains - in a cover story that was creating problems for the selection of the cover image - how Twitter has become central in the life of most web users, a sort of "web identity"  that increasingly serves as an access key - or better, a way for registering - to other websites obliged to shape their interfaces (for example the tweet button mentioned by Joshua Benton this week) and their products based on Twitter experience.

Ford tries to examine the hidden mechanism, everything that is behind a tweet: not only as simple set of 140 characters, but also as a means by which information can be captured and reassembled by millions of other websites. It is the mechanism of the 'third parties' applications that thanks to the Twitter API (the set of technical information made available to other programmers) makes Twitter a platform on which software developers of other companies can work, improving the adaptability, making it more valuable at no cost. "All tweets share the same anatomy" Ford explains, but it is something more than a couple of sentences and a hashtag. It is an entire and fascinating technological and financial mechanism that responds perfectly to the human impulse of communication, of the manifestation of the desire "to inform, to amuse, to outrage". Certainly it is nothing new with respect to human nature and its physiological need - some say that Twitter is more a discovery than an invention  - but the strength of the medium has been to provide a place, a format, a simplified approach and the ability to access it anywhere with mobile applications (the San Francisco-based company was among the first to understand that smartphones "could work as a broadcast platform").

How Twitter "changed the world"

The definition that Twitter has affected more than one aspect of 'media life' is now accepted. This week the BBC website has published a timeline to tell the story of its evolution and explain how and what areas of life have been radically changed since its introduction. From the birth with the name of "twttr" in 2006 to a little past its recent hashtag adoption (through the 'invitation' of users, in 2007), Twitter recounted and accompanied much of recent history. From politics, which has experienced a new form of campaign communication and the failures of politicians forced to resign, to breaking news (above all the tweet of Sohaib Athar on the capture of Bin Laden in Abbottabad) and activism, making it the ideal tool to collect, spread and coordinate protests. The dimension of online and of general news began to take on new connotations. In fact, now we very often read about the "golden age of news" (Bill Keller of The New York Times is just the latest). Even the arts, law and business have been subjected to some influence. Although the numbers of the Californian social network cannot be compared to those of Facebook, "no social network has quite the influence of Twitter" .

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic has analyzed the most shared tweets in an attempt to figure out what they were saying about Twitter and its users. Among the top twelve, there is one written by the astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, one by the football player Cristiano Ronaldo, some by teen icons, one by the rapper Drake and another by Dropbox, witnessing how the average age of users is obviously low and how the dominant interests are related to sports, technology and pop culture in general. An awareness that must have led the company - the author assumes - to adapt the means to the needs of the youngest users and advertisers (in fact one of the tweets selected by Madrigal is an advertising post), simplifying the interface. The emancipation from "hardcore information experience" with an indirect language (@, #, RT) and a rival such as Facebook did not stop it from establishing itself as a necessary tool, as a 'place to be', in one's own way and with one’s own "obsessions".

A platform for news consumption

This week a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, on the habits through which Americans get news, gave new data on the use of Twitter as a news platform and the level of penetration of news in the population. Only 8% of U.S. adults consume news on Twitter  (which is the platform used by 16% of these), although it stands out that they are younger, more educated and better prepared to read through via mobile than the 30% of Facebook users of the same bracket. Four-in-ten (40%) Twitter news consumers have, at least, a bachelor’s degree , compared with 29% of the total population and 30% of Facebook news consumers. 45% of Twitter news consumers are 18-29 years old, more than 34% of those who do it via Facebook and more than double their demographic representation of the whole population (21%). The strengths that emerged from the study are known.The ability to be a  collector of real-time news, being at the same time a multidirectional conversation tool ("It is, essentially, sentences with friends", Kathryn Schulz of New York Mag summarizes in an article which tries to explain how, despite the skepticism, Twitter has 'conquered' her).

Numbers that, despite the precise generalizations, cannot represent the entirety of the population in any way. There are many examples. As the study points out, Ron Paul would easily have won the Republican primary in 2012, according to the analysis of tweets during the elections  (55% of the conversations about him were "positive" to the detriment of the actual winner, Mitt Romney). The reaction of Twitter users compared to the polls was quite different, on a national basis, on gun control after the Newton shooting. This week, Marty Kaplan of Salon launches a warning about the levels of 'ignorance' in his own country. Americans who follow the news are in a minority, while the overwhelming majority "may as well be living on the moon". The main source of news is still TV and 38% of online readers spend an average of only 90 seconds per day looking for news on the web. Young people between 18 and 31 spend only 46 minutes a day watching, reading or listening to news, compared with 66 minutes of the 33-47 bracket and 77 minutes of those between 48 and 66 .

Adapt or die

The challenge for journalism is how to catch new readers, in particular those regular web users who aren't currently news followers. It is a preliminary challenge of the now epic search for a future business model, and one that Cory Haik, Senior Editor of The Washington Post,  summed up on her Tumblr with the term "adaptive journalism". According to Haik, journalism should be able to offer "the best storytelling for the user at that moment, given how much we can presuppose about their time/space continuum, as it were". In other words, she specifies, adapt the news and tools to the environment and to readers. Catch their attention and adapt to their needs - and to do so, it is necessary to embrace every new technological development, using any platform to ensure that potential readers, in some way, continue to consume news. This week, Frederic Filloux in one of two posts explains how $250 million should be invested today (which is the amount spent by Bezos for The Washington Post and Pierre Omidyar for the new publishing product which will involve Glenn Greenwald) in digital journalism.

For years, Haik continues, traditional journalism has managed to maintain some relevance by imposing its own 'calendar' (the morning paper, the news on schedule), but in a world dominated by a 24/7-hour news cycle the flexibility of sharing news instantaneously is essential, and platforms like Twitter represent a big opportunity. In this regard, the interview released this week by Nate Weiner of Pocket on FastCompany is interesting. It shows that the average longevity of an article on the internet (at least among those saved on the service which allows the creation of a list of posts to be read at a later time) is about 37 days before they fall forever into the group of content never read. According to Haik "modern technology and social media have forever altered the way in which we transmit and consume information" . Nevertheless, the writer concludes, the earliest humans had thousands of years to evolve and develop an organized communication system. Compared to this, the revolution which is taking place in the media has been developed recently: "we just have to be open to change and meet the consumers where they are".

(Image via Bloomberg Businessweek)


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