A lot of people are talking about Twitter these days. Indeed, some broadcasters are so excited about Twitter, they sometimes seem to discuss little else. So you could be forgiven for being a bit put off.
But if you are interested in the news and in becoming a journalist, you have to be on Twitter. That’s not to say it will be quite as useful in the future as it is now. No doubt something of a scale we can’t grasp yet will come along and supersede Twitter. But right now, in 2011, Twitter is essential for student journalists. This blogpost offers a brief explanation as to why.
What Twitter is
Two common ways of describing Twitter are that it is a “social networking” or “microblogging” tool. I don’t think either of these is particularly helpful as far as journalists are concerned. Although you can certainly use it to stay in touch with your friends, or for issuing brief thoughts about some topic or other, neither function begins to explain the impact Twitter is having on journalism.
Instead, think of Twitter as an information-sharing service. It allows people from all over the world to give information updates, and for these updates to be shared with other people almost straight away. So, not only do we have a lot more information, but that information is available everywhere very quickly.
Given that Twitter is used not only by journalists, but also by people and organisations in positions of power who make news, as well as by members of the public who may be caught up in events, a lot of the information updates on Twitter will be interesting as news. “News travels fast” is an old saying, but it has never travelled as fast as this.
Why you need to be on Twitter
The main reason why it’s important for student journalists to use Twitter is that, well, lots of people in the media do. If you want to be part of that world, then you’d better start acting like it. Learning how to use Twitter and to get the best out of it for your journalism will add to the traditional skills you’ll be taught on your course, giving you an advantage over those who haven’t bothered.
Then there’s the whole question of journalism’s uncertain future. Although this is discussed in academic papers, chances are you’ll have too much other reading to do to spend much time sifting through those. Instead, the debate about the huge changes to our trade takes place every day on Twitter, as links to articles and blogposts are shared and discussed, praised and criticised.
The days when you could graduate from a good journalism course and be likely to get an entry-level position in, say, local radio, have long gone, along with many of those jobs. I believe it’s up to all of us who want to have careers in journalism to use new media to try things out, experiment with new ways of working, and to talk about what’s successful and what isn’t. Right now, Twitter is the best forum for the latter. Besides, that well-known journalist you end up debating with on Twitter is the sort of contact you’d never have been able to make in the old days. You need to get involved.
The best way to use Twitter
You sign up for a Twitter account by visiting www.twitter.com and following the instructions (it’s free). You can post your tweets of up to 140 characters directly from twitter.com if you want, but it’s much better to use a third-party client. These interact with Twitter so you can see and send tweets in a more user-friendly way.
Tweetdeck is arguably the most popular and best-known. But because it is app-based, you have to download the software to start using it. Fine for your laptop or smartphone, but you won’t be able to do this if you’re using a shared computer, such as a terminal in a university cluster. So, I recommend the web-based Hootsuite instead.
The best people to follow on Twitter
In order to see updates posted by others on Twitter, you need to subscribe by ‘following’ them. As soon as you’ve clicked ‘follow’ on that person’s account, their tweets will start to appear in your feed.
In order to help you get started, I’ve created a handy list of some notable journalists on Twitter. You can find it by clicking here. If you become a follower of the list, you will be able to import it into one of the columns on your Hootsuite dashboard. However, you’ll need to follow each of the accounts individually if you want to see their updates in your Home column.
You can send a tweet to someone by mentioning their username. When someone does this to you, the tweet will appear in your Mentions column. All of the tweets are publicly visible, although ones which mention a user at the start will not appear in the feeds of others, unless that person is following both the sender and recipient.
If you want to share a tweet sent by anyone with those people who follow you, then you ‘retweet’ it. You’d usually do this if you think something is interesting or funny, and this is the technique by which news travels fast on Twitter. An interesting update from a newsmaker or a breaking piece of information from a news company is often retweeted hundreds or even thousands of times within minutes, meaning that information is quickly available to huge numbers of people.
You’ll also notice tweets featuring ‘hashtags’ which are keywords relating to particular topics, preceded by the # symbol. Click on the hashtag, and you’ll be able to see every public tweet sent using it. A bit like a search engine that works in real time.
You can also send direct messages, which can’t be seen by others and are basically the same as private messages on Facebook, by putting a ‘d’ at the start of your tweet. But, as Chris Huhne recently discovered, be careful that you do.
Other things Twitter is useful for
The third-party clients such as Hootsuite are able to connect to other social media accounts you may have, such as your Facebook or LinkedIn profiles, which certainly makes it easier to keep on top of everything.
Twitter’s not just there for the serious things in life either. Twitter is fun. In fact, it’s particularly worth reading during X Factor and such, for an often-hilarious running commentary on events. And, unlike Facebook, your Aunt Jemima isn’t on there. So you can swear as much as you want.
There are also lots of new tools which have been developed for journalists, such as Storify, Audioboo and Dipity. You can log in to these and many more using your Twitter username, so that’s nice and easy.
But this blogpost is really just the most basic of introductions. There are lots of more detailed guides out there, such as this one from Mashable, which is well worth a look.
I’ll see you on there. I’m @rlwjones, by the way.