The Media and Twitter – Social Leverage

witter’s ascendance in the media world began with its ability to help cover breaking news and has grown from that to beginning to shift the relationship between news professionals and their audiences, in some cases blurring the lines that separate them.

Twitter for Breaking News

Lets’ start then at the beginning – how Twitter has revolutionized how we receive and react to breaking news.


The first real breakthrough for Twitter in the media world was when KPBS covered the huge fire in San Diego County in the fall of 2007. KPBS set the stage for how to cover an emergency in a 2.0 world by using Twitter, Google Maps, and cell phones to help it cover the story. The result was a much faster and a much more comprehensive picture/story could emerge. The “Wisdom of Crowds” in action!

Twitter adds speed to news alerts and dissemination and can also add the ability to pick up on events as they start. Citizens in Los Angeles, for instance, can now Twitter  the LA Fire Deparment  when they see signs of a fire. This, on their initiatives, from an article last year:

Humphrey said the department began looking at Web 2.0 technologies after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. While those stranded at the Louisian Superdome in New Orleans were certainly hungry and thirsty, “they were dying a little bit at a time from a lack of information,” he said. “They thought they were on their own Gilligan’s Island.”

The LAFD uses four attributes to characterize the success of Web 2.0 tools: desirable, beneficial, justifiable and sustainable.

“We can no longer afford to work at the speed of government,” he said. “We have responsibilities to the public to move the information as quickly as possible … so that they can make key decisions.”

Interest in the LAFD’s effort has grown; its blog just logged its 1 millionth visitor this year (2007), and photos on its Flickr account have been viewed 500,000 times in the past year, Humphrey said. The department has made widgets available with content it produces and uses RSS to allow more users to subscribe to updates.

But the most popular effort has been the Twitter account, which now has about 190 followers who can receive Twitter updates from a mobile device. For example, a Twitter will report that a structural fire is being battled by 30 firefighters, or that a car accident has occurred. It reads like a dispatch log of sorts from the calls the department receives and answers.

“The idea for us is that not everyone who is in need of information in times of distress will be sitting in front of a computer,” Humphrey said.

While no funds have been earmarked for these projects, and Humphrey and Myers spend time on and off the clock working on them, the LAFD has more than 80 Web 2.0 projects in the pipeline that it is testing.

Humphrey advises other government agencies testing the waters of Web 2.0 not to fall into a common misconception about the technology: That it will allow an organization’s voice to be heard louder, more clearly and over a greater distance.

Instead, “having this Web 2.0 presence … allows us to listen more clearly and more accurately over a greater area,” he said. “It is all about getting much more feedback [from the public].”

But, the department’s journey to the Web has not been without its challenges. As Humphrey, a 22-year veteran of the department who has a propeller placed under his fire helmet in his office likes to note, “I don’t have a problem running into a burning building … but stepping out into the Internet was very intimidating.”

EMS Providers all over the world are watching, starting to understand how Twitter can help, and implementing programs of their own.

Twitter is also revolutionizing how stories are broken and events are covered. We, the former audience, can alert others, do original short-form reporting, and be a part of the story. Now breaking news happens on Twitter first (exhibit #231 – the January 15 crash of a US Airways flight which was captured on an iPhone and posted to Twitpic within minutes). Language is no barrier either with Google able to translate tweets in near-real time.  Here is an example of Chinese being translated in real time:


It’s the shift in the relationship between the traditional journalist and the audience where much of the new power and value of Twitter will likely come.

Twitter is also becoming an important tool in covering politics. The 2008 Conventions were widely covered by Twitterers, for instance. Again, the slightest shift in mood can be captured in real time. Here is what I wrote as the financial crisis unfolded in September 2008:

What a few weeks this has been. Twitter has become my primary news source.

I have been able to get way ahead of the curve as Hanna and Ike developed. A huge number of news and personal feeds aggregated into a very complete view of what was happening. Many news organizations are now twittering as are of course us as individuals. The combination is excellent.

As the financial crisis took hold – I have been days ahead of what is happening. It was almost like being in the room with Hank Paulson this weekend. Now there are tweets from staff too.

I would say with breaking news a Twitter perspective is at least a day ahead and is much more complete.

The Conventions were very well covered. All the key media outlets joined the Twittersphere – some better than others. The best ones did more than retweet items – they provided color on the Tweets. There is a richness, immediacy and personality in the political coverage that is missing in conventional converage

So if you wish to experience this – try Tweetdeck that allows you to set up specific groups to follow. I have Fannie Mae group, an Ike Group, A Lehman group. I did have conference groups. You can follow any topic really.

Twitter has become my first port of call for news.

Most news organizations are going there too – Now Citizen Journalism is I think being defined. For instance Huffington Post has a bunch of “Stringers” such as Dave Winer and Jay Rosen tweeting. The News Hour has its own Tweet.

More immediacy is being delivered – here is the NYT blogging in real time about the day on Wall Street today Sept 15 2008. It’s like being there – so different from a headline

So what does this imply? That if you are a news organization and you are not scanning or adding back to Twitter – you are no longer in the game. It’s not so much about being trendy but being relevant at a very cheap price at a time when no one can afford the old kind of news gathering. Even the Associated Press, an old answer to how to get coverage for less is dying. My prediction:Twitter will be the new AP.

Twitter as mechanism for amplifying a media relationship with its “audience”

There have always been fans of stations and of personalities in media. But these relationships have mainly been that of worshippers of “Gods”. There has been a distance and a power differential. Now, with good content ubiquitous, Twitter offers the ability to add an inner ring of fans who interact with each other and with the provider, blending, in effect, into one larger inner group. The result is that the social gravitational pull and the energy output of the show is vastly increased.

First an example and then the science.

This “Gravity” effect was first experienced with the Bryant Park Project (BPP),  an experimental show produced by NPR. While the show is no longer on, the success that it achieved in its use of social media has been incorporated in its new hit show Planet Money where key people such asLaura Conaway built on what was best about BPP.

BPP was a morning show. What Laura and her team were able to do with Twitter was to make BPP into what felt like a great breakfast diner.


In a great diner, the guests all know each other – but only chat when they feel like it. You can wave across the room. Or read the paper. The waitress knows our favorites and we tell her all our gossip. She knows everything! It feels like home. It is that home away from home. A 3rd place.

Oldenburg calls one’s “first place” the home and those that one lives with. The “second place” is the workplace — where people may actually spend most of their time. Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs. Oldenburg suggests these hallmarks of a true “third place”: free or inexpensive; food and drink, while not essential, are important; highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance); involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there; welcoming and comfortable; both new friends and old should be found there. Michael Krassa argues along similar lines, looking at neighborhood design, social network formation, and civic involvement.

That is what Laura created at BPP. This inner core of listeners became the marketing department, the unpaid stringers, the research department. The show has been off the air for months now and yet the participants in the BPP Twitter group are still close and helped get Planet Money off to a roaring start.

So how did this happen, why should you care and how does this work?

The emergence of this fierce inner group started by accident. Laura was in very early one morning and instead of being her more normal dry professional broadcaster asked on Twitter if anyone else was up that early. I was and said hi.  Soon a crew of early birds joined in and the ice was broken. The more informal the team at BPP were, the more people joined the diner. Much of the conversation was about food and how we all felt very early in the morning. The conversation built during the airing of the show. The regular audience would get the professional voice but the inner group were all fooling around on Twitter. We felt that we were part of the show.

What was going on was “Grooming,” the building of that key core group that gives you the pathway to the full power of the Twitterverse.

Channel 4 News took up the baton from BPP are are doing a super job – here is a link to Mark Hanson who comments on Twitter and Branding:

The key is humanising your brand and no better example than the feed that comes from the ChannelFour Newsroom. It provides an insight into the decisions made in the course of the day that give a picture as to why what ends up on screen ends up on screen, an insight into the thought process and the people involved.

The key word? “Humanising”.

Why should you care? You should care because if you can create this core inner group – most easily done by Twitter – you will have amplified the power of your offering. For little money, you can break through the noise that is the infinite content universe of the web.

How does this work? It’s all about the power of the inner group as the pathway. But let’s look at this from another perspective.


This is a shot of a fitness class run by a client of mine called UFIT. Note the circles. What became clear to us over time was that the success of the class depended  not only on the skill of the instructor – Gord in the centre – but as much on the inner ring of the class who were the old sweats. They amplified Gord’s signals and it was their enthusiasm that gave the larger class its energy. When there were not enough of the old sweats on the inner ring, the class went flat – even with Gord going full out.

This insight, that in any social group to go to full power there needs to be an inner group, is key to being able to get the full potential of Twitter.


What Laura had done was to create this inner ring – as Gord had at UFIT. Such a inner ring seems to have the property of gravity.


The sun has a dual effect on the system. Its mass, gravity, holds the system in place and gives it coherence. Its mass in turn creates energy that feeds out giving life to the system as well.

I am starting to think that social systems may share a lot in common with this model, that for any community to have any power it has to have enough mass at the centre to give it coherence and enough mass at the centre to provide energy.

Maybe this is why we are seeing evidence that in social networks, we only need very small masses to offer this power – the 1% Rule.

So in a media world where the noise levels are extreme – where content is appraoching the infinite – you can differentiate your offering by using Twitter to build a viable “system” around you.

Using Twitter well therefore become a life or death skill in the world of media. It offers the best ROI at a time when money is scarce.

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