Here’s a story about what Twitter used to be like, what it’s like now, and how it’s still more or less as useful as it ever was.
After a couple of false starts in 2008, I finally started to get it in early 2009. There wasn’t all that much you could do with Twitter itself back then, especially when it was interrupted by the all-too-familiar Fail Whale. But one of the things you could do was make a Twitter list of useful tweeters to follow. Import the list into a third-party application and suddenly you had an updating feed of tweets, a bit like the news wires familiar from all those hours spent in newsrooms.
I had a go at creating one of Formula 1 journalists, stuck it into Tweetdeck on my laptop, and kept an eye on it during one of the early Grands Prix that year. As the race went by I noticed I was looking at the list more and more, as reporters (James Allen’s was particularly good) passed on bits of information the TV commentators hadn’t spotted. Some people might remember it as the year when Jenson Button won the title, but in my house 2009 is fondly recalled as the ‘Summer of Second Screening’. Glory days, indeed.
I started to create a list of tweeting journalists to use at work. Local and national, newspaper, TV and radio, every time I spotted a new reporter on Twitter I’d add them. Soon, this list overtook everything else as my main source of news. As an early warning system for breaking stories, and a filter of the best stuff to read online, I found it was remarkably useful. After a while, I even worked out how to turn off the little chirrupy sound Tweetdeck used to make when it updated (I actually switched to Hootsuite and have stayed loyal ever since – evidently I change my bank more often than my social media management tool).
I used various Twitter lists extensively as a tool for gathering hyperlocal news when I did Saddleworth News. I noticed that one of my former employers, Sky News, was really getting into it, too. When I started teaching journalism students at the University of Leeds in 2011, one of the first things I would show them would be how they could use Twitter like professional journalists were starting to.
— Electoral (@electoralhq) January 19, 2015
And all these years later, even though you’d have thought something else would have come along by now, I’m surprised how little has changed. I still add the odd name to my master list of journalists, and a tweet arrived the other day from Electoral HQ telling me it was now the biggest, and second-most popular, list of its kind on all of Twitter. I still look at it every day, several times a day, on mobile, tablet and desktop.
Growing up I found myself impulsively loading up Ceefax all the time, probably to check whether something catastrophic had happened since I last checked. Later when I worked in newsrooms, I was forever casting my eyes down the wires. At one level the Twitter list has really just filled this particular hole in my media consumption. But it’s not because of the technology itself, rather it’s the fact I’ve taken the time to interact with it and curate a list of users who are particularly useful to me that makes it so indispensable.