Twitter is a facilitator.
I had already planned to write a post about Twitter acting as a facilitator and the unfortunate events in China today re-affirmed what I was going to say.
Back in February I posted:
"Twitter is more the facilitator of communication rather than the end channel so it is probably better to take deeper discussion and analysis away from this environment in order to effectively extend a particular conversation."
With recent events this has never been more apparent. There have been complaints about Twitter as a medium being limited but such complaints also show Twitter's true nature, for example:
Exactly. You can't talk politics in 140 characters. It's simply not possible. Must be done in person over beer. :)
Twitter is not intended as a public discussion forum but is a way of bringing people together, breaking news and spreading the word so that the conversation can be shared and then discussed in the most appropriate place - FriendFeed comments or blogs, for example. Admittedly it has moved on from its initial 'status update' beginnings and, as people find more uses for Twitter and spend more of their time on it, perhaps it is natural to want something else from it.
Breaking news is widely cited as the one thing that could force twitter past the tipping point and in to mainstream usage. A number of instances have occurred recently and today Robert Scoble remarked about twitter being quicker than mainstream media in reporting the Earthquake in China.
I replied that it is due to there being no limits, no restrictions, and (perhaps most importantly) no fact-checking with Twitter as people are reporting what's happening directly to them as it happens. No news service could ever hope to keep up.
It was interesting to see Rory Cellan-Jones refer to Twitter breaking this news on his BBC Blog and he wondered if this would be "the moment when Twitter comes of age". The fact that Twitter was only mentioned in the context of a technology blog (albeit from a stalwart of mainstream media) rather than as part of the main story does little to boost Twitter even though a professional journalist is singing its praises. I think it is fair to say that not many people would read his comments, and probably those who do read his blog are already on Twitter - he is therefore just preaching to the choir.
Mainstream media has an obligation to be accurate and unless there is a policy change I can't see organisations such as the BBC quoting the likes of Twitter as a source for breaking news without undertaking any due diligence. They may announce "unconfirmed reports" but the source of those reports would most likely never be given. Maybe there might also be a conflict of interests, why tell your audience to look elsewhere for their news?
A different animal
Twitter can indeed break reports faster than anywhere but is this news in the traditional sense? Probably not. Even when a service is fastest it is still acting as a facilitator, especially when you are limited to 140 character posts. Twitter allows us to see what is happening and gives us access to the aspects of the story which we must follow and piece together for ourselves. It is fantastic that so many threads can be interwoven from all over the world in such a short space of time but a service like Twitter is a tactic and not the target. It is a means of distribution rather than a destination and, as such, may never take over from traditional 'reporting'.
Mainstream media may look to sources such as Twitter for breaking news and 'on the ground' reactions but the service will remain a way to link people to information rather than being the information source and until mainstream media acknowledges such services in its reports Twitter, and other social media services, will remain a means to an end and not the end product.
Could a social news service hope to compete with mainstream media? Is it responsible to quote such a source without fact checking or are the inherent delays in reporting unavoidable?