Archive for May 10th, 2009

This is a longer version of my Monday column in The Gazette:

People approach change in a fascinating variety of ways.

Some of us spend much of our lives trying to change the world. Some eagerly adopt the newest tools, techniques and toys. Some change reluctantly but resolutely because they know they have to. Some lie low when change is afoot, hoping if they are silent change will bypass them. Some loudly defy or even mock change without so much as bothering to understand it.

I find myself at varying times in the first three categories. Occasionally my heart wants to lie low and avoid the change, but my head recognizes that as folly and always wins that argument. I think and hope I avoid blustery defiance because it looks and sounds so silly.

In my life of watching change and reactions to it, I can’t recall a trend that has flipped the loud defiance switch as often as Twitter.

I blame this partly on the name. It’s a silly name that has spawned an endless string of silly related names – tweeps (the people who follow you), tweets (your updates), retweeting (passing along another person’s tweet) and so on.

Jill Geisler of  the Poynter Institute, thinks journalists would have responded more readily “if Twitter had been born with some heftier moniker – you know, like ‘teletype’ or ‘wireservice,’ and tweets were called ‘toplines.’”

I like the name and I like the discomfort it gives people. That’s because I love watching human nature at work and Twitter brings out some fascinating wrinkles of behavior. When I write about Twitter on this blog, I frequently receive comments from people saying my staff should stop “wasting time” on Twitter and do some real reporting.

My father (probably parroting one of his parents) used to tell me that it was better to sit there looking stupid than to open my mouth and remove all doubt. You could take that advice wrong and think you should never speak up. But Dad was not a quiet man himself and encouraged me to speak up when I had something to say. But his point was that when you don’t know what you’re talking about, be quiet and learn, rather than saying something stupid.

Those people who say Twitter is a waste of time haven’t bothered to learn how quickly you can use it or how it can save you time.

A Canadian journalist, Corey Larocque of the Niagara Falls Review, wrote dismissively last week about Twitter, calling it the “flavour of the month.” (You can tell which side of the Falls he writes on by how he spells flavor.)

I’ll give Larocque credit. He did some secondary research on Twitter before he wrote. He found me online and cited some of the reasons I say journalists will find Twitter useful. (Because he dropped my name, a Google news alert called the column to my attention.)

But Larocque didn’t actually gain any valid firsthand experience with Twitter. He went further than some Twitter critics do, creating a profile (though he didn’t even identify himself as a journalist or post a photo of himself) and tweeting a couple times (noting in the first that the novelty had already worn off). That’s it – two tweets and he followed 11 people. Time to open his keyboard and remove all doubt.

The Center for Media Research last week sent out a “research brief” with the headline “Twitter Just A Blip So Far.” The brief went on to cite a Harris Poll saying that “only” 5 percent of Americans are using Twitter. The brief could just as easily have noted that 15 million Americans use Twitter – more than double the combined print circulation of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times combined.

Here’s how fast Twitter can bring you the news (from a Rafe Needleman blog that I linked to from Twitter, of course): In the Twitter offices in San Francisco on March 30, engineers noticed the word “earthquake” trending up in tweets. Seconds later their building started to shake. The earthquake was 60 miles away in Morgan Hill and Twitter spread the news faster than the tremor itself could travel.

I don’t care how silly the name is. I want a chance to have the news — and spread the news — that fast.

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