"Social media" was one of the buzz-phrases of 2008. It was the year when the new generation of social-networking tools began to seep into the public consciousness - the "new social media" upstarts looking to usurp profits from Facebook and MySpace. Twitter in particular caught peoples attention, the ranks of its users swelling enormously as celebrities and politicians started using it to send out messages to fans. As Obama's campaign has demonstrated, these new social-networking sites have fantastic potential in politics, especially when it comes to closing the much-lamented "democratic deficit." On the other hand, they also have enormous potential for the viral transmission of slander, gossip, porn and humourously captioned pictures of cats.
I've just got into Twitter myself, and in terms of how I adopted it, I have behaved like an absolutely typical newbie. My experience was as follows:
Step 1) The First Tweet
When I first blogged about Twitter a few weeks back, I called it a "glorified Facebook status-update bar." I couldn't see the point. Didn't Facebook do this sort of thing better? But Twitter had been in the news a bit, and Stephen Fry was on board and had twittered all about being stuck in a lift, so I thought I might as well see what all the fuss was about and give it a go.
My first "tweet" was fairly predictable: "Josef is finding his feet with this 'twitter' malarky." Nothing wrong with that, of course. I was finding my feet. But it wasn't long before I'd moved on to stage two...
Step 2) Non-Information Overload
I proceeded to detail my life in excruciating detail - explaining what I'd had to eat, what I was watching, what I was listening to, what I was doing during every minute of every hour of every day. I thankfully stopped short of describing my bowel movements... but only just.
To be fair, Twitter did market itself as a service which, to use correctly, requires you to answer the simple question, "What are you doing?" several times a day. But I found this to be a deeply unsatisfying way of using Twitter. And so did my friends.
After a few days of "Josef is not sure what to do today" and "Josef found a peanut behind the sofa", I started to get posts on my Facebook wall (I'd integrated Twitter with my Facebook status-update bar) complaining that my updates were getting increasingly tedious.
Step 3) Enter The Power-Users
Before long, I naïvely thought I had finally "got" Twitter. It seemed to be the perfect web-feed. I "followed" a bunch of blogs and websites, and their "tweets" would pop up on my desktop (I used Digsby to follow Twitter in real-time), letting me know about interesting new articles and posts as they went online.
Then, as I started following highly-networked Twitter accounts such as Stephen Fry, Barrack Obama and Kevin Rose, the predatory "power-users" began to take an interest. People with 20'000 followers, usually social media "experts," began randomly following my account.
At first, I didn't mind all these new contacts. I followed them back and quickly built up a little network of mutual followers. But it was a flawed network. We had absolutely nothing in common, and they were only using me to bump up their numbers. So along came the fourth stage...
Step 4) The Great Purge
This was where Twitter started to get interesting.
I unfollowed all of the useless power-users who had been cluttering up my data-feed. More would quickly take their place, and at first I would manually block them from following me. After a while, though, I just ignored them. Most power-users run programs which automatically unfollow you if you don't reciprocate and follow them back.
When I became more selective about who I followed and who I let follow me, I began to see Twitter's real potential. I was organically growing a network of contacts tailored to my specific areas of interest. In my case, it was the European Union.
After several weeks of use, I really think I "get" Twitter now. I've said that before, and I've been wrong, but I've had a bit more time with it now.
Twitter (IMHO) has three primary uses:
- Information Gathering - Twitter makes a rubbish web-feed. Google Reader is much better at that particular task. But if you run Twitter in the background, then it works like the little rolling infobar at the bottom of TV news broadcasts. And Twitter has the potential to deliver news almost in real-time, well before traditional media. The first pictures of the Hudson river plane-crash came out through Twitter, uploaded by a passenger on a ferry from his mobile.
- Promotion - Twitter, out-of-the-box, is a bit pants. But if used in concert with a program like Digsby and a Twitter-specific search-engine (such as Twitter Search) then it can become a powerful little tool for promoting your work. You can search for people who share your interests, and start following them. Over time, you can develop a network of people who are genuinely interested in what you're writing, no matter how obscure the topic. The readership of this blog (although still humble) shot up when I started using Twitter.
- Networking - I inadvertently managed to get my blog selected by the editors of bloggingportal.eu as one of their picks of the day. I'm not sure, but I have a sneaky suspicion this was because I'm following some of the editors of that site and have been @tweeting things their way. At the very least, it got my blog noticed. But Twitter is a great way to meet contacts with similar interests. In fact, the whole point seems to be to grow a network of contacts - which makes Twitter a breeding ground for the creation of new and creative collaberative projects.
EU 2.0: When Twitter Meets the EU
In addition to these primary uses, I've been experimenting with a fourth (and slowly emerging) new way of using Twitter. It's only just taking shape, but already (of course) has a portmanteau to describe it: Twitterviewing. To twitterview.
This is, for me, by far the most exciting potential use for Twitter. It's something I've only experimented with a little so far, but it could potentially become a vital tool for journalists, bloggers and (most importantly) citizens. In the European context: public figures, MEPs and other institutional members (such as commissioners) are increasingly turning to new social media that could potentially expose them more and more to questions from the growing ranks of "citizen journalists."
So far, EU politicians and bureaucrats are still finding their way when it comes to new social media. A handful already have blogs (some of them obviously maintained by their staff and used for nothing more than posting weekly itineraries online) and I haven't yet come across any which actually allow comments. [EDIT: Thanks again to Grahnlaw for exposing my sloppy research! Some eurocrats do indeed allow comments on their blogs. They may not often actually respond (perhaps understandably, given the amount of vitriol thrown their way) but they should be commended for at least allowing comments. I want to encourage more people to point out errors in my posts - I will always try to correct them. I have no editors or producers, so my readers are effectively the only content-control I have. Another drawback (and benefit) of new media.] The few "eurocrats" already on Twitter are mostly using it as a web-feed for their blogs. But the potential is there.
It is, of course, the ultimate wet-dream of e-democracy. To have unfettered, 24/7 access to democratically elected representatives who will respond to direct questions from concerned citizens, without a press officer there to hold their hand. It is also, however, horribly unrealistic. No doubt some European politicians and other EU people will be willing to expose themselves to the public eye and dive headfirst into twittering (and good for them!) - but most will be either unsure of the technology, unwilling to take the PR risk or, doubtless, worried about the inevitable accusations of time-wasting. But there is another important way Twitter and the other new social media could positively affect the EU. They could impact upon the developing EU blogosphere by better connecting bloggers with the general public.
One of the ways Twitter differs from other social networking sites, such as Facebook, is that it is a more receptive environment for cold-networking. With Facebook, for example, when the average user receives a friend request from a total stranger, they will reject it as a potential spammer (I certainly do). Cold-networking (networking without any previous contact) is, however, at the heart of the Twitter community.
I experimented a little with cold-networking when I wrote about the recent Swiss referendum. The day the news broke, I hopped onto Twitter Search and looked for accounts from Switzerland (and anybody generally just talking about the Swiss referendum). I put together a short generic question asking people their opinions on the results and I sent it out. Every single person I asked replied. Here's a selection (anonymous because I neglected to ask their permission to post this):
"to me a "Yes" on Swiss vote means openness and a willingness
to take some risks - Swiss people becoming better at both IMO"
"populations are becoming more international
in composition and outlook."
"Another POV is apparent if you look at a map:
look at .ch and its borders, can we really go alone?"
Perfect, bite-sized little reaction quotes for a blog. These people, total strangers, were willing to share their opinions with me through Twitter. Not only that, but several of them have since joined my network of contacts and we've been engaging in a bit of debate. They will (I hope) read my blog and comment. And I will listen to what they have to say (and especially to how they react to my views on their opinions). There is the potential for real, on-the-spot, citizen-journalism in new social media.
And there is, of course, also very real danger here as well. "Bite-sized" can also mean shallow. "Citizen-journalism" can also mean sloppy hack journalism. Early pitfalls have already emerged. When conducting twitterviews, for example, it needs to be made clear that what is said will be posted online, and permission needs to be sought for citations.
One twitterviewee also pointed out the obvious limitations of a platform like Twitter:
Yes you can [ask my opinion], but I will
not be able to answer in 140 characters! :)
In future, then, I think I'll include an e-mail address in my question, so twitterviewees have more of an opportunity to expand upon their answers.
Ultimately, these are still early days out on the European digital frontier. Two new sites have just been launched which could provide a focal point for the EU blogosphere. I've already mentioned bloggingportal.eu, which aggregates EU-related blog posts and has editors select the most interesting posts daily. It could become an invaluable site for blog-promotion, and for anyone who doesn't have the time to set-up a dedicated RSS feed. I'd like to see a bit more transparency in terms of information about the editors and the selection process, but we're promised this will come soon. [EDIT: Andreas of Kosmopolito blog, also involved with the bloggingportal project, has responded to this. Editor profiles will indeed be up soon, but the selection process is subjective, and so it's difficult to make it transparent. This is fair enough, and when Editor profiles are online, (hopefully outlining political views and areas of interest), it shouldn't be a problem].
The second site is an initiative by the European Journalism Centre called TH!NK ABOUT IT. There seems to be some overlap between the two websites, even if it's only that the seemingly omnipresent Jon Worth is involved in both projects [EDIT: Andreas pointed out that his and Jon's involvement in both projects is a coincidence reflective of the small size of the EU blogosphere. I really do see those guys popping everywhere! :D]. TH!NK ABOUT IT is a blogging competition aimed at drumming up public interest for the European Parliamentary elections in June.
The site seems to be experiencing a couple of technical difficulties (some dead feeds and profiles) but this is probably to be expected from any project involving 80-odd members of the public. The roster of bloggers has been picked from the 27-member countries and will be whittled down by public votes and a "grand jury" to an overall winner. There's a good gender mix amongst the bloggers, but it's a sea of white faces. It would have been nice to see more (any!) non-white representation.
Another thing which seems a bit odd is that, from the looks of it, all of the ED!TORS are also simultaneously contributing TH!NKERS, with the possibility of winning the "grand prize." This could be a bit suspect, as the ED!TORS have certain powers when it comes to influencing the jury. Could be fishy... but let's give them the benefit of the doubt. [EDIT: Thanks to Andreas for correcting me on this one. ED!TORS cannot post blog entries, and cannot win the final prize. So, no conflict of interests.]
Regardless, TH!NK ABOUT IT has already demonstrated its potential to succeed in its primary goal; it's encouraged me to start looking into how exactly I'm going to vote in the EU elections in Italy. And if only a small fraction of those 81 bloggers go on to develop successful EU blogs, then the whole project will have been a success.
Like I said, however, it's still early days on the European digital frontier. Let us, as always, wait and see.