On the splintering of the fourth estate and fifteen things that twitter does rather effectively

I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the best things I’ve read all year. Consider it the first of my best-of-2010 posts.

Now I wouldn’t normally reblog a massive chunk of text like this, but Alan Rusbridger’s Guardian lecture the splintering of the fourth estate is a must-read, and definitely one worth saving for looking back on in a few years’ time. This particular passage – "off the top of my head, things that twitter does rather effectively" – seemed particularly rebloggable, because a) it pins down the massive cultural significance and potential of Twitter; b) it’s so very twenty-tennish; and c) it’s a list. Lists are pretty.

Just to clarify, everything below is written by Rusbridger, not me. Don’t credit me. Credit him. And thanks to Jeremy at magCulture for making me aware of this transcript in the first place.

The short version:

  1. It’s an amazing form of distribution
  2. It’s where things happen first
  3. As a search engine, it rivals Google
  4. It’s a formidable aggregation tool
  5. It’s a great reporting tool
  6. It’s a fantastic form of marketing
  7. It’s a series of common conversations
  8. It’s more diverse
  9. It changes the tone of writing
  10. It’s a level playing field
  11. It has different news values
  12. It has a long attention span
  13. It creates communities
  14. It changes notions of authority
  15. It is an agent of change

The long version:

1 – It’s an amazing form of distribution

It’s a highly effective way of spreading ideas, information and content. Don’t be distracted by the 140-character limit. A lot of the best tweets are links. It’s instantaneous. Its reach can be immensely far and wide. Why does this matter? Because we do distribution too. We’re now competing with a medium that can do many things incomparably faster than we can. It’s back to the battle between scribes and movable type. That matters in journalistic terms. And, if you’re trying to charge for content, it matters in business terms. The life expectancy of much exclusive information can now be measured in minutes, if not in seconds. That has profound implications for our economic model, never mind the journalism.

2 – It’s where things happen first

Not all things. News organisations still break lots of news. But, increasingly, news happens first on Twitter. If you’re a regular Twitter user, even if you’re in the news business and have access to the wires, the chances are that you’ll check out many rumours of breaking news on Twitter first. There are millions of human monitors out there who will pick up on the smallest things and who have the same instincts as the agencies – to be the first with the news. As more people join, the better it will get.

3 – As a search engine, it rivals Google

Many people still don’t quite understand that Twitter is, in some respects, better than Google in finding stuff out. Google is limited to using algorithms to ferret out information in the unlikeliest hidden corners of the web. Twitter goes one stage further – harnessing the mass capabilities of human intelligence to the power of millions in order to find information that is new, valuable, relevant or entertaining.

4 – It’s a formidable aggregation tool

You set Twitter to search out information on any subject you want and it will often bring you the best information there is. It becomes your personalised news feed. If you are following the most interesting people they will in all likelihood bring you the most interesting information. In other words, it’s not simply you searching. You can sit back and let other people you admire or respect go out searching and gathering for you. Again, no news organisation could possibly aim to match, or beat, the combined power of all those worker bees collecting information and disseminating it.

5 – It’s a great reporting tool

Many of the best reporters are now habitually using Twitter as an aid to finding information. This can be simple requests for knowledge that other people already know, have to hand, or can easily find. The so-called wisdom of crowds comes into play: the “they know more than we do” theory. Or you’re simply in a hurry and know that someone out there will know the answer quickly. Or it can be reporters using Twitter to find witnesses to specific events – people who were in the right place at the right time, but would otherwise be hard to find.

6 – It’s a fantastic form of marketing

You’ve written your piece or blog. You may well have involved others in the researching of it. Now you can let them all know it’s there, so that they come to your site. You alert your community of followers. In marketing speak, it drives traffic and it drives engagement. If they like what they read they’ll tell others about it. If they really like it, it will, as they say, “go viral”. I only have 18,500 followers. But if I get retweeted by one of our columnists, Charlie Brooker, I reach a further 200,000. If Guardian Technology picks it up it goes to an audience of 1.6 million. If Stephen Fry notices it, it’s global.

7 – It’s a series of common conversations

Or it can be. As well as reading what you’ve written and spreading the word, people can respond. They can agree or disagree or denounce it. They can blog elsewhere and link to it. There’s nothing worse than writing or broadcasting something to no reaction at all. With Twitter you get an instant reaction. It’s not transmission, it’s communication. It’s the ability to share and discuss with scores, or hundreds, or thousands of people in real time. Twitter can be fragmented. It can be the opposite of fragmentation. It’s a parallel universe of common conversations.

8 – It’s more diverse

Traditional media allowed a few voices in. Twitter allows anyone.

9 – It changes the tone of writing

A good conversation involves listening as well as talking. You will want to listen as well as talk. You will want to engage and be entertaining. There is, obviously, more brevity on Twitter. There’s more humour. More mixing of comment with fact. It’s more personal. The elevated platform on which journalists sometimes liked to think they were sitting is kicked away on Twitter. Journalists are fast learners. They start writing differently.

Talking of which …

10 – It’s a level playing field

A recognised “name” may initially attract followers in reasonable numbers. But if they have nothing interesting to say they will talk into an empty room. The energy in Twitter gathers around people who can say things crisply and entertainingly, even though they may be “unknown”. They may speak to a small audience, but if they say interesting things they may well be republished numerous times and the exponential pace of those re-transmissions can, in time, dwarf the audience of the so-called big names. Shock news: sometimes the people formerly known as readers can write snappier headlines and copy than journalists can.

11 – It has different news values

People on Twitter quite often have an entirely different sense of what is and what isn’t news. What seems obvious to journalists in terms of the choices we make is quite often markedly different from how others see it – both in terms of the things we choose to cover and the things we ignore. The power of tens of thousands of people articulating those different choices can wash back into newsrooms and affect what editors choose to cover. We can ignore that, of course. But should we?

12 – It has a long attention span

The opposite is usually argued – that Twitter is simply an instant, highly condensed stream of consciousness. The perfect medium for goldfish. But set your TweetDeck to follow a particular keyword or issue or subject and you may well find that the attention span of Twitter users puts newspapers to shame. They will be ferreting out and aggregating information on the issues that concern them long after the caravan of professional journalists has moved on.

13 – It creates communities

Or, rather, communities form themselves around particular issues, people, events, artefacts, cultures, ideas, subjects or geographies. They may be temporary communities or long-terms ones, strong ones or weak ones. But they are recognisably communities.

14 – It changes notions of authority

Instead of waiting to receive the “expert” opinions of others – mostly us journalists – Twitter shifts the balance to so-called “peer to peer” authority. It’s not that Twitterers ignore what we say – on the contrary (see distribution and marketing, above) they are becoming our most effective transmitters and responders. But, equally, we kid ourselves if we think there isn’t another force in play here – that a 21-year-old student is quite likely to be more drawn to the opinions and preferences of people who look and talk like her. Or a 31-year-old mother of young toddlers. Or a 41-year-old bloke passionate about politics and the rock music of his youth.

15 – It is an agent of change

As this ability of people to combine around issues and to articulate them grows, so it will have increasing effect on people in authority. Companies are already learning to respect, even fear, the power of collaborative media. Increasingly, social media will challenge conventional politics and, for instance, the laws relating to expression and speech.

That was an awfully long blockquote, wasn't it? Maybe I should try to boil it all down to 140 characters or something.