Twitter gets the word out and fast! Twitter can spread news quickly because the news comes first hand from those experiencing it, concise (140 characters), and directly from their finger tips to a potentially worldwide audience. However, the ability to receive that breaking news has much to do with how well you, the reader, can process the stream of data; how many people you follow; and what subject/focus group captures your interest.
How many should I follow?
In the beginning we commit to following a few. "I don’t understand how people can follow hundreds or thousands. I’ll follow 10 or 20." That is how I began my Twitter experience. Today I follow 555 (yes, like the timer). A quick sidebar, if you follow 10 people who Tweet once a week each you will have a far different Twitter experience than following 10 people who Tweet once an hour. Too often we think of Twitter in "numbers of followers and following" when really it should be "ratio of following to tweets produced by those you are following." Back on topic, If you follow a small number of people your Twitter experience will be one of intimacy and learning great detail about those people. Your experience is narrow and deep. If you follow hundreds of people or thousands, your experience is wide and shallow; however, you experience a pulse like a life force on the common thread that ties those people together. If those hundreds of people are all in the tech industry, you will know what is happening in technology the instant it happens. If those hundreds of people are in the entertainment industry, you will know the gossip and dealings of Hollywood, Broadway, etc as it happens. If those hundreds are politicos, you will be informed more quickly about politics than others. And if those hundreds are locally connected, say all from Knoxville, then you will know about the happenings in your local area more rapidly than others. Of course topics bleed over. Those you follow could be local people that are into technology and politics. If those hundreds or thousands are diversely unrelated, you will get noise.
How to process the information?
Twitter’s power is in its SMS interactions. Okay, not so true. Twitter’s power is the community, the people, the audience; however, adoption of services like identi.ca, which stands to give Twitter the most fierce competition, has been slow due to lack of SMS integration. If you follow hundreds of people and something newsworthy happens, your phone will beep so quickly that you cannot possibly follow the conversation. Although SMS is very powerful for Twitter, it is cumbersome when the action is occurring. Watching Twitter in a browser is tedious and requires taking your attention away from other activities such as your job, family or playing solitaire. Using a program catered to Twitter is the best way to get the most from Twitter. For me, that program is Twhirl. Twhirl can connect to multiple Twitter accounts, Friendfeed, Identi.ca, Seemic and anything that commuicates with XMPP (and if you don’t know what that is, don’t worry, most people don’t). Twhirl sits in the background and in my peripheral vision I see its little stream move along. When I take breaks I scan it for keywords. In certain circumstances I get a ping with an alert to say it needs my attention. For the most part, I can stay connected without being distracted. And if it ever becomes a distraction, I turn it off. The problem with programs like Twhirl becomes its ease, addictiveness, and amusement. On a whim, I can send a nonsensical out and often it is directed to a single person but rather than making it a private message, I inadvertently spam 550 people (or in Barack Obama‘s case 64,140 people). Of course, maybe those 550 people want that level of interaction. For me, that remains my unanswered question, "what do these 550 people want or expect?"
What subject matter belongs in Twitter?
Your interests will dictate your Twitter experience and make it far different from someone else’s Twitter experience. I believe Twitters fall into
- Exhibitionists, Voyeurs, Gossips – These are the folks that will send/read a stream of messages about the minutia of daily life
- News feeds – These are the folks alerting the world about their experiences with the California fires, or the next big event. These are the newspapers getting the headlines out. These are people like myself alerting others that the Interstate is at a stand still.
- Topic Specific – These would be people sharing information about a particular subject. Unlike news feeds these will often include back and forth discussions about the topic.
- [addition to original post] Spammers – People taking advantage of the tendency to follow those who follow you simply to draw attention to a product or website. The Twitter staff and others are trying to minimize the ability for people to spam through Twitter.
- [added Nov 5, 2008] Utility – such as how The RedCross has used Twitter to make accessing the Safe and Well database easier.
A fifth category could be utility such as how The RedCross has used Twitter to make accessing the Safe and Well database easier. By following a topic specific group of people, you will get a pulse on the latest news regarding that topic. You will be in the know. By using a program like Twhirl, you can have multiple Twitter accounts simultaneously following different topic areas. Or by checking Twitter Search (aka Summize) you can quickly be updated on a particular subject matter. So yes, I think that you can rely on Twitter for breaking news. I think some misinformation is likely to come with the speed at which Twitter delivers that breaking news, but Twitter (and main stream media) will be quick to correct the misinformation.
See also: Who quit following you on Twitter?