In Defence of Twitter

So I started my MA in Interactive Journalism at City University London and from day one, it became crystal clear that I am no longer allowed to hate Twitter.

Over the past year, I made three conscious and determined attempts to befriend the blue bird, but in vain. Each of them left me even more perplexed and annoyed with my pet peeve.

I identified 3 reasons for my frustration:

  • information overload (which seemed impossible to control);
  • unilateral character of tweets (easily replaceable by more interaction encouraging Facebook posts);
  • (the apparent) lack of immediate applicability.

What I did not know is probably that Twitter is the most useful thing when used with a purpose.  Using it as I struggled to do was simply a waste of time.

The first weeks of my course flagged up some of the more obvious advantages of managing your Twitter account in the best thought-out a manner, such as:

  • establishing your professional presence online;
  • entering interactions with professionals in your field of interest;
  • outsourcing news stories.

But in order to fully convince myself of its worthwhileness, I decided to dig into the subject and find 3 creative purposes Twitter served. They are not strictly connected to journalism nor necessarily very recent, but they tell stories and reinforce my resolution to start using the network more often.

Case study 1: Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”

This little sci-fi short story by the Pulitzer Prizewinner flipped the reading experience on its head by removing the control over the pace of reading from the reader in favour of the author.

Written specifically to be disseminated via Twitter from the New Yorker Fiction account (@NYerFiction), it created suspense while followers waited for the next line of the story to unfold. One tweet a minute for an hour over 10 days in May 2012.

The story was tweeted in 140-character instalments, which originated from the notes Egan took in a Japanese notebook that had eight rectangles on each page. This way she was able to stick to the space limits imposed by Twitter.

The author spent one year polishing her 600 tweets, which in itself counters the idea of instant messaging the service is based on.

Clearly, the new medium defines new formats.  Although the tradition of serialised fiction is of long standing, “Black Box” added an additional aspect to the experience. It managed to gather readers around the released bits in the same time, regardless of the place they were in.

Case study 2: Real Time WW2 by Alwyn Collinson

The long-term project by the Oxford history graduate aims at reporting each day of the World War II in exceptional detail – as it happened seven decades ago.

The Twitter feed @RealTimeWWII was created in August 2011, right in time to report the German invasion of Poland in September. It is currently tweeting about the events of 1941 and has attracted over 300,500 followers and media from all over the world (including the Telegraph, BBC News and the New York Times).

Mr Collinson sees it as an educational project that helps experience history in real terms, and assures that he will carry on until 2017, when the war will end again, this time online.

Real Time WW2 is a great example of how non-fiction content can be embedded into modern ways of story-telling – more interactive (as many discussions with the followers suggest) and more accessible than voluminous history books.

The educational impact of live-tweeting of the past is (very) briefly discussed here:

Case study 3:  The West Wing Twitter accounts

In 2010 Twitter accounts of the characters in the American drama blurred the lines of fiction, real world and its digital “shadow”. President Bartlet, Josh Lyman, Leo McGarry, Matt Santos and Mrs Landingham all got a new, post-TV life and 140-character lines to fill.

While Twitter accounts for fictional characters abound, West Wing accounts stood out mainly because they engaged in commenting real life events and ultimately elicited interaction with prominent American politicians including Vice President Joe Biden (see the fictional Joshua Lyman’s exchange of tweets with Joe Biden here).

Interestingly, the accounts came into existence only 4 years after the serial drama had been off TV.

In brief, Twitter can be useful, and creatively useful.  The key is to know how to make it work for you.  If you’re after more casual uses than developing a novel or spending 6 years in a bid to recreate a historical event in tweets, follow these simple steps:

  • create Twitter lists as soon as you get an account (these will help you keep your contacts organised in categories);
  • use  a Twitter client, e.g. TweetDeck (it makes it easier to keep tabs on what’s going on thanks to its customisable columns displaying your timeline,  mentions,  direct messages, lists and favourites), here is how it looks:
TweetDeck - how to keep your Twitter account under control.

TweetDeck – how to keep your Twitter account under control.

  • set up a account to shorten links you want to post in tweets (a great space-saver, especially if you feel particularly restrained by 140 character as I do!) – it also allows you to track how many clicks your link got;
  • get a TwitPic account to make your Twitter experience more visual (it will enable you to attach pictures to your posts);
  • integrate your Twitter with your website to gain more visibility.

Clearly, Twitter and many experiments going on around it, including parody accounts, flexible identities, anonymity and other very creatively usable tools will define the new ways of story-telling. So, fellow Twitter-sceptics, brace yourselves. And tweet.

More on innovative story-telling in this TED Talk by Andrew Fitzgerald: