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January 18, 2012

USA: Twitter - The Hashtag Revolution

LONDON, England / Reuters Magazine / Egypt / January 17, 2012

Twitter is Google and Facebook's tabloid cousin: loud and freewheeling, light on rules, heavy on sensational hard news

By Jonathan Weber

In just five years , Twitter has evolved from a 140-character punch line into a universal, all-purpose newswire, free and open to almost anyone, throbbing with the pulse of the planet in real time. It's where Newt Gingrich announced his presidential run, Prince William announced his engagement, and where the killing of Osama bin Laden was old news by the time President Obama announced it on television. If you're watching or taking part in a political protest - be it in Tahrir Square or downtown Manhattan - Twitter is where you have to be: faster than CNN, more credible than Fox News, and uniquely able to invite you to both follow the news and report it too.

Twitter is, of course, much more than a headline news wire. For many of its 100 million users around the world, it is primarily a source of diversion and occasional amusement. Nor is it alone as the creator of a new kind of global electronic conversation: Google and Facebook, Tumblr and Wordpress, and much of the rest of the global communications industry are among those reinventing the way the world communicates about its daily intrigues, be they prosaic or horrific.

But if the basic purpose (or "use case," as techies like to say) for Facebook is sharing a picture of your kid or "friending" the cute girl in your chemistry class, the use case for Twitter is to get the word out: I have a new job! The police are pepper-spraying us! The big rally is happening downtown at 10:00! Beyonce is pregnant! Steve Jobs is dead!

And you don't even need a computer; just about any cell phone will do.

Like many Internet media companies, Twitter positions itself as a platform - a utility-like entity that provides a set of tools for people to use as they see fit.

Unlike Time Warner or The New York Times or Reuters, Twitter is not a "content creator," to use the vernacular. Rather it is a proud democratizer of content creation, neutral as to the substance of digital bits of information but open to anyone who has something to say. Twitter doesn't report the news; rather, people report or retransmit the news on it.

As the reach of Twitter and the other Internet media companies extends across the globe, though, it's becoming apparent that they are not just enablers of communication, they are publishers, wrestling with classic publishing problems. They make decisions about what types of words and pictures are suitable, they determine how to respond to would-be government censors, they struggle with how to organize information in a useful fashion, and they even worry about how to handle advertising in a way that doesn't alienate customers.

While Google seems a bit New York Times-ian (smart, thorough, reliable, and a little arrogant) and Facebook tends toward People magazine or USA Today (something for everyone, clean and generic, more concerned with the softer side of life), Twitter is their tabloid cousin: loud and freewheeling, light on rules, heavy on sensational hard news, encouraging risk and experimentation.

In spite of that - or perhaps because of it - Twitter has become one of the most important news purveyors of the 21st century.

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© Thomson Reuters 2012
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