Tim O'Reilly – Why Twitter Matters for News

Twitter has been used for a lot of different purposes, and one has been to report breaking news. But there’s been some criticism of how Twitter deals with news, such as the Swine Flu outbreak. With that in mind, O’Reilly Week in Review talked to Tim O’Reilly himself, co-author of the new Twitter Book, about the role of Twitter in informing the public.

James Turner: Thanks for taking the time, Tim. You guys have just come out with Twitter Book. Right now, Twitter’s getting a lot of volume because of the whole Swine Flu to-do. Do you think that it’s been a net positive?

Tim O’Reilly: You made the comment that Twitter’s getting a lot of play, but Twitter has so many uses. It’s a little bit like saying, “Well, the internet’s getting a lot of play,” or, “The telephone is getting a lot of play,” or, “Video is getting a lot of play.” People are using this medium, and what’s so interesting about Twitter is that it reflects all the many, many use cases, including spreading misinformation as well as being the first alert of new information. All of these are good functions. And I think some people reacted a little bit to the fact that Twitter seemed to increase the fear and hype level a little bit.

But I don’t know that I would blame that on Twitter. Twitter just meant that the news spread faster. So anyway, I guess when I think about Twitter, the thing I think about the most is how powerful it is at reflecting actual human communications. I know people who are using it in hundreds of different ways. There are people who are using it for that wonderful original use case that Leisa defined so beautifully as ambient intimacy. I know people like me who are using it as a way of sharing my thought processes–what I’m learning, what I’m reading, what I’m caring about. I’m using it as a publishing medium really. And I’ve described my own work with Twitter as being the most minimal newspaper. And I mean that very seriously. When I gave a talk at the New York Times recently, I spoke about Twitter. I talked about the process of what a publisher does. A publisher pays attention to a community, whether it’s a community of authors or a community of news makers. And they then curate it. They decide what’s important. And then they share that with their community of readers. And then they presumably have feedback groups. And so I look at what I do with Twitter and I say, “Wow, I’m sharing the news that I’m finding interesting.” I also have the ability to, in some sense, increase the status of members of my community.

I got this originally when I tweeted about the fact that I really liked the Venture Hacks site. And Babak Nivi, who started the site, had a post actually on FriendFeed, in which he posted a graph showing what happened to his Twitter follower account when I did that. And it doubled immediately. And I think that’s a wonderful thing. I was able to find somebody that a lot of people who were following me didn’t know about. I was able to call him out and say, “Hey, here’s this great post on Venture Hacks. I find this a great site.” And I did just what I do when I publish a book or just what I do when I pick somebody to be a speaker at a conference. I’m basically saying, “This person is worth paying attention to.”

And, for me, that’s just a very, very powerful use case that has made me so fond of Twitter. But then, of course, I go out there and I see all of these other ways that people are using it. And it’s just exciting.

JT: One of the things I’ve noticed is that while what used to be traditionally considered blogs have stopped being web blogs, and they’re more personal editorials, or personal rants. Twitter has really turned into, for a lot of people I think, the new blogging medium because with the short length and with using the tiny URLs, a lot of what I see is just a line about something interesting someone saw and a link.

TO: Yeah, it’s funny. If you look back at the very early web blogs, you know, Dave Winer‘s UserLand blogs, it really was in some sense a tweet stream. Dave, literally in the course of the day, was doing tweet-length paragraphs saying, “This was interesting. This was interesting. This was interesting.” And then occasionally, he would write a longer essay. And I think what we’re seeing is the bifurcation of that function of blogs which was, “Hey, I saw this. I want to share it, “and the, “Hey, I want to have a longer conversation or opinion about this,” into different tools.

I think they may need to be reunited in some future world, because I know I certainly find certain pieces that I wish that had a few more than 140 characters to comment. I find myself sometimes being pulled into conversations, in which case, I go, “Boy, I really should be doing this on FriendFeed.” Certainly, there’s the Tumblr-length blog posts. And, by the way, I think that’s actually something that many people have not noticed. Many people are aware of Tumblr, but what they’re not aware of is how the Tumblr-style blog post has actually become part of many other sites.

So, for example, if you look at Huffington Post, many of their little squibs, their little widget-sized article leads that they have on the homepage, are to Huffington Post articles, but many of them are to articles on other sites. So effectively, they’ve embedded a Tumblr-like blog, slightly more expanded than Twitter, within the context of what is a remaking of the blog into a newspaper. And, of course, the Wall Street Journal has always had a column of Tumblr — almost Twitter sized — entries which were usually pointers to more extensive articles elsewhere.

JT: Just to come back to news to finish things off, Garry Trudeau has fairly noticeably been parodying the process of news generation, or news reporting, by professional journalists on Twitter. What do you think the role might be for Twitter in news gathering and news reporting in general? I know that, for example, the Swine Flu “pandemic” that’s going on, we had a case in New Hampshire and essentially all I was doing was repeating, “Wow, we just had a case in New Hampshire.” So I don’t know that I was adding any value to the conversation beyond kind of this echo chamber that it’s being referred to. Is there a place for news?

TO: Absolutely. First off, I wouldn’t say that you’re adding no value because one of the values that occurs when somebody says, “Oh my gosh; we had a case in New Hampshire,” is that they’re spreading the word. The fact is the re-tweeting or commenting like that is a the equivalent of the news boy on the street corner, “Breaking news.” You know? We don’t have that anymore. We’re just kind of passing on the word.

Now you might say, well, that’s a less important function than breaking original news. Absolutely. And, yes, it sometimes can become drivel. But I also think we’ll get better tools for separating the wheat from the chaff. And people will learn, “Oh, I’m not adding value anymore.” And I certainly think that re-tweeting has gotten somewhat out of hand. And that’s one of the reasons why in the Twitter book, I wrote a section about why “via” is better than RT. It was really around this idea that it’s very easy and lazy to just say RT @ some user and pass on whatever they said. And it’s much better to give your take on it and then give them credit with a via. And since I’ve really started trying to do that more, I find myself making sure that I pass on something of my own connection to the story or, in some cases, not passing it on at all.

JT: Well, Tim, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Tim O’Reilly is, of course, the Founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media and also the Co-Author of The Twitter Book.

TO: Thanks very much, James.

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