I asked my elders if they knew what Twitter was. Surprised to find I am less cyber-savvy than their more senior selves, many informed me that not only do they know what it is, but they make use of it on a regular basis. I admit I felt like a (nervous cough) twit.
In many conversations today, references to Twitter are not about a feeble birdcall, but a social network and micro-blogging service allowing anyone to flock and utter their own noises known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters which are displayed on the user's profile page and delivered to other users who have subscribed to them (who are known as followers).
Twitter was created by Jack Dorsey in 2006, and has recently gained extensive popularity worldwide - being rated as the third most used social network with Facebook being the largest, followed by MySpace.
But not all people heed its call. “Twitter is the devil,” says Benjamin Fogel, a first year Rhodes student, “it is worse than Facebook”. Fogel says, “Twitter is so narcissistic, it’s basically a narrative of your life as you put up statuses all day.”
“With Facebook you have photos,” says another student Candyce Bruce, “and that’s a big attraction.”
However, some compare Twitter to Facebook in more favourable ways, particularly regarding its worth for the media industry. Guy Berger, head of the Rhodes School of Journalism & Media Studies, calls Twitter “Facebook lite”. Meaning that “you can social network selectively and without a heap of irrelevant and long postings - because the messages have to be small”. Berger believes the shortness of Twitter messages is a “key benefit” as it “compels people to be brief”.
Daily Dispatch editor Andrew Trench sees the the phonomenon as more than that. "Twitter is the new church bell of the village," he said, adding that it "beats Facebook hands down for its immediacy and the dynamic nature of the content flowing through the Twitter feeds".
Posts may be small, but this does not prevent technology from covering big issues. Several 2008 US presidential campaigns used Twitter as a publicity mechanism, including President Barack Obama. Twitter use increased by 43% on election day. David Saranga of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that on 30 December 2008, Israel would be the first government to hold a worldwide press conference via Twitter to take questions from the public about the war against Hamas in Gaza.
As a follower, Berger uses Twitter to “follow the best and the brightest in the field of new media, tracking their observations on the changing media world, and following the internet links which they often post”. As a reporter, he uses the service to post live snippets of information about media conferences he attends.
Jude Mathurine, of the New Media Lab at the School of Journalism & Media Studies said, "Grocott's Mail was one of the first South African newspapers to set up a Twitter account in 2007. The idea was to encourage Grahamstown to subscribe to Twitter and to use Grocott's Mail's Twitter feed to keep them informed about the latest breaking news." However, Twitter cancelled its support for free SMS shortly afterwards.
"In 2008 we continued to use Twitter,” Mathurine says, "but this time as a tool to inform users of our website (who are those who wouldn't have access to a physical copy of Grocott's Mail) about the latest updated stories on our website." Twitter is also used from a training point of view to introduce new media students to micro-blogging.
It seems that media organisations throughout the country are taking advantage of this networking service. Mathurine says, "Media organisations like Radio 702 use Twitter to provide breaking information to their audiences, thereby engaging them while listeners are focused on their programming, even when listeners are outside of the station's broadcast."
The use of Twitter by audiences also allows for a more interactive media relationship as "listeners feel like they are part of a community by listening and responding to their tweets, and by providing breaking news."
Trench is a busy man and his online surfing time is becoming more and more limited. So he says, "by building a good Twitter network I'm able to access dozens of great content recommendations and keep my eyes open for trends and stories constantly."
Trench says he finds Twitter more useful for specialist tips and pointers than any other online service. In particular, he has "tried to create a Twitter network of similar interests to myself - people who are interested in South Africa, news, online trends, media and other issues to do with journalism. It's also a brilliant way to generate traffic to your own blog or a company blog and we use it for that as well. My own blog and our main breaking news blog at the Dispatch are both set up to publish into Twitter when we update them.
"It's very powerful as an alert service as we've seen in recent dramatic news events. I got more news from Twitter about the recent Cape Town Table Mountain fires as that story was unfolding than I got from traditional media," he says.
But this is not to say that people who use Twitter necessarily mean business. “Sometimes people mix together personal news and more general interest news, and you may not necessarily be close enough to them to want to hear what they fed their cat for breakfast,” says Berger. Mathurine agrees that although some tweets provide accurate, fair, just-in-time information in the public interest, there is "no doubt that like other forms of communication, Twitter can be heavily ego-driven, but that should not detract from its benefits".
Twitter has also chirped up a nest of new jargon.“When there is an event or theme, and people Twitter with the same keyword (called a hashtag) at the start of each post, then it is a great way to see what the entire "Twittersphere" (Twitter community) is reporting on that matter,” Berger says.
Other newly-coined Twitter lingo in the twictionary include the words tweet (a single message seen on Twitter, or act of posting to Twitter), Fly-Bye (signing off of Twitter), celebritweet (a celebrity who uses Twitter), narcissitwit (someone in love with the sound of their own tweets), and tweet cred (the level of respect you command in the micro-blogosphere due to your witty, cool or ingenious tweets). More than a hundred others can be found on http://twictionary.pbworks.com/. Popular celebritweets include Stephen Fry, Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher, who is the first Twitter user to reach the one million follower mark.
Trench is clearly a fully-fledged user. "I use tweetdeck at home and at work, and I also use twitterberry on my blackberry so I'm constantly checking in on what's up. I know, I know, I sound like an addict."
To improve the service, Berger says: “It could be better integrated with local SMS messaging in South Africa, thereby catching up with the way it works overseas. That way, people whose cellphones do not do GPRS or 3G, or who don't know how to use this kind of facility, can be part of the communication loop.”
Because only 10% percent of the SA population currently uses the internet, the service is