Some thoughts on Twitter

I’ve been Twittering for almost two weeks now, and I’m really enjoying it. As a personal tool and blog-extender, Twitter is great. I don’t do much link-blogging here on Korr Values, and my blog posts tend to be longish and not-so-frequent. Twitter lets me link-blog and write short, frequent thoughts that I wouldn’t necessarily post here (though maybe I should).

But I have two big issues with Twitter so far, or more like one and a half maybe. One is a general criticism, and one is specific to journalism. The latter issue suggests that while the kind of information-delivery that Twitter represents will be increasingly important to newspapers and journalism, Twitter itself might not be the best way for newspapers to harness this new info-delivery mindset.

The general problem is that URLs count toward the 140-character limit for each Twitter post. Jeff Jarvis asked recently: “Are we losing a wealth of link knowledge on Twitter because it’s all going through TinyURL and other services that truncate addresses so they’ll fit?” It’s a good question. On a less global-Web scale, it’s annoying not knowing where someone’s Twitter links are sending you. There’s often not enough space for a Twitterer to indicate who they’re linking to, and readers can’t mouse over the link to find out (because it’s just a tinyurl or the like).

An easy workaround would be to make URLs invisible to the character count. This wouldn’t result in extra-long, strange-character-filled Twitters because the posts already automatically truncate long URLs with an ellipsis. And it would resolve both my petty annoyance and Jarvis’s worry about Twitter links not counting toward the Web’s internal knowledge.

The bigger issue is that Twitter’s 140-character maximum is an arbitrary cutoff that may limit the program’s (system? tool? what is Twitter?) usefulness for journalists.

I asked in a recent Twitter post whether it’s a breach of protocol to continue a thought in a second post. To me, that violates the spirit of the 140-character limit. But if you can’t do that, Twitter is somewhat useless to newspapers. Try getting a full quote into a single Twitter post; unless your source is unusually pithy, it’s very hard. Now try covering a City Council meeting or other event without including a single quote. It seems that following the 140-character limit would result in much more impressionistic news coverage.

If it is okay to continue a thought in multiple subsequent posts — well, why bother having a character limit at all?

Maybe impressionistic, real-time, multiply authored news coverage is okay. Daniel Victor gave a wonderful example of Twitter-as-news-coverage a couple weeks ago, when truckers staged a protest in Harrisburg. Here’s a portion of a Twitter thread from that day:

bydanielvictor: Trucks blaring horns on 2nd Street in protest of gas prices. Normally I’d be amused but they woke me up. Was looking fwd to sleeping in. (9:32 a.m.)

bydanielvictor: Thought it was a Three Mile Island alarm or some other apocalypse notification system. (9:32 a.m.)

gotwalt: Hundreds of tractor trailers driving by the office honking their horns to protest gas prices. It’s like a hangover simulator. (9:34 a.m.)

Victor contrasted the Twitter coverage with a newspaper’s, concluding that “this experience on Twitter shows how the supposed immediacy of blogging just won’t be immediate enough as more people find their way to services like Twitter.”

It was a great example of Twitter at work, but does it really point to the future of news coverage? What if you want to know more about why the truckers are striking? Are their claims fair, can the state legislators do anything about it, etc.? On the other hand, the paper probably went into these details in a preview story, or could do a follow-up. I guess if truckers are blaring through your city, at that moment you’re probably less interested in policy details and more about the immediate details an impressionistic Twitter feed could tell you.

Even if those immediate details are what readers want, the 140-character limit could make things unwieldy once many more people are using Twitter. As I commented on Victor’s post:

One of my general worries about getting wrapped up in Twitter is that it could be a massive time-suck going through hundreds or thousands of postlets. What if that happened on a small scale with news stories?

Would coverage of, say, a presidential debate or inauguration, or a political rally, or a county fair, be overwhelming if you had to sort through 150 different Twitter feeds or posts on it? Granted, 150 snippets of different points of view could be more interesting, but simply the logistics of getting your news that way could get tiring, it seems.

So I’m back to the arbitrariness of that 140-character max. Ultimately I’m not sure why multiple 140-character Twitter posts are better than a simple live-blog. Or better than multiple non-truncated Twitter posts. Particularly for events or stories that involve people talking (which is most stories), the Twitter model won’t work as well as a live-blog that actually has space for quotes.

It’s not an either/or situation. Twitter could work fine for certain kinds of stories. Even for events involving people speaking, sometimes quotes don’t matter; at an iPod unveiling, for example, I don’t always care about Steve Jobs’s PR-crafted pitches. And newspapers certainly should be internalizing and implementing the kind of news delivery Twitter represents: real-time, partly reader-generated, link-friendly.

But while the 140-character limit largely defines Twitter, it might be too arbitrarily strict for wholesale newspaper adoption.