The news in a tweet, tweet world

Twitter turned six years old on March 21. Started two years after Facebook, it has 140 million active users sending out 340 million tweets – short messages containing not more than 140 characters — a day, it says. The Twitterati – Twitter users – may total less than a fifth of the Facebook users, but don’t underestimate the power of Twitter.

A picture posted on Twitter by the fashion model Poonam Pandey after India defeated Pakistan in the Asia Cup, which was published by a newspaper in Kolkata, sparked tension in the city. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee appealed for peace and harmony while the newspaper published an apology, saying it had no intention to hurt the sentiments of any community. Pandey, who subsequently removed the picture from her Twitter account, tweeted: “I am a peaceloving person and I don’t advocate any kind of violence.”  But such is the power of social media that anything can go viral with unforeseen consequences if posted by a celebrity like Pandey, who has more than 142,000 followers on Twitter.

Twitter can be a source of enlightenment, too. On India’s Budget day, Reuters was carrying a live feed on its Indian website, mixing news updates with comments on the social media. When Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee raised taxes quoting Hamlet, “I must be cruel only to be kind”, someone tweeted a cheeky rejoinder. The minister did not quote the next line, he pointed out: “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” Obviously, the minister could not say that. He wanted to defend the budget, not talk of ill consequences. But an Indian news weekly riffed off the quote, running a cover story with the headline: “Trapped. Can Congress survive bad policy and worse politics?”

No wonder the Indian government is leery of social media. It can’t be expected to behave itself.  Someone, somewhere will always say or do something to make the authorities look silly or put them on edge.

Yet the government has embraced social media to reach out to the people. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh joined Twitter in January and gained more than 73,000 followers. Nobody can ignore the new media. From Barack Obama to JRD Tata, almost  every leader of a nation or a business empire is on Twitter. As, of course, are the writers and celebrities. It is the easiest way to connect with fans and peers. Salman Rushdie used Twitter to give his side of the story when a controversy prevented him from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival in January.

“In 2011, Twitter came of age,” writes Kate Bussman in her book, A Twitter Year. “Over the past 12 months, it’s made plenty of headlines on its own, most notably for the way it helped revolutionaries in the Arab world spread the word about atrocities and upcoming demonstrations.”

Not even Twitter’s founders expected it have such a profound influence. Bussman writes, “The brainchild of American software expert Jack Dorsey, Twitter was originally conceived simply as a way to share short messages with friends.” Dorsey told the Los Angeles Times: “We looked in the dictionary… and came across the word, ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’ and ‘chirps from birds’. And that’s exactly what the product was.”

“At first, Twitter appealed mainly to techies. Nobody else really noticed it much until November 2008 when a terrorist takeover of fancy hotels in Mumbai flooded the site with tweets about what was happening, way ahead of any news bureau reports,” recalls Mary Cross in her book, Twitterati, Bloggerati: How Blogs and Twitter Are Transforming Popular Culture, published last year.

 

Twitter has become a newsbreaker.  It broke the news of the US attack that killed Osama bin Laden last May. A Pakistani in Abbottabad reported seeing helicopters and hearing bomb explosions and his tweets were picked up by the news agencies. Ironically, the Pakistani did not even know Osama was hiding in the area and was the target of the US attack. That was confirmed by the media.

The media monitors Twitter to gather information.  It can no longer cover the news simply by talking to politicians, authorities, eyewitnesses and the man in the street.  With people exchanging information on Twitter and Facebook, these have to be monitored by journalists too.  Twitter, in particular, has proved an invaluable source of information  because  you can follow people on Twitter even when they are not your “friends”.  Facebook also now allows you to “subscribe” to people who are not your  “friends”, but Twitter seems better suited for information junkies who want their news fast. From the BBC to CNN, every news organisation posts an update on Twitter each time it publishes a story.

Journalists in America and Britain, in fact, are expected to be social media savvy. From Rupert Murdoch to the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, almost every eminent journalist and media man is on Twitter. You can see Murdoch taking pot shots at Obama while journalism professors and new media evangelists like Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and Sree Srinivasan discuss exciting new trends.

The most popular tweets are both informative and entertaining, encouraging wordplay among the Twitterati. So when Davy Jones of The Monkees, a Sixties pop group, died last month, fans retweeted, “I saw his face and I’m a bereaver”,  playing on the lyrics of one of their biggest hits, “I saw her face and I’m a believer.”

You can also learn new words, discover new books and go back in history on Twitter. Publishers, authors, word mavens and history buffs have all joined the conversation.  I have even seen Shakespeare’s plays tweeted and  John Kennedy’s election to the White House reported as seen through the eyes of Jacqueline Kennedy.

What’s the point, you may ask. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Share what you like, one tweet at a time.

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