Following the World
May 2009

by Beverly Spicer

photo by Eli Reed

"Follow us on Twitter." Until recently, I had no idea what that meant.

It's almost embarrassing to admit that three weeks ago I was solidly among those most ignorant and therefore skeptical of Twitter, which is the latest and maybe greatest of the emergent online social-networking phenomena to date. It took me a while to "get it" about Facebook and even longer to be hit by the new wave of the most revolutionary Web-based, microblogging innovation ever to come along.

Before I encountered this burning bush, I had heard only mildly of Twitter; I knew nothing except it is an Internet message board where anyone could jot down a brief thought or condense a longer message into no more than 140 characters and post it to a worldwide network. I didn't know what it meant to Follow anyone, which refers to the sources from whom a user chooses to receive messages (tweets). Nor could I imagine what it meant to have Followers, a custom-designed network a user allows to receive his or her outgoing tweets. At best I had the idea Twitter might be an incomprehensibly scattered, monumental time-wasting device, something of truly dubious value. Introductions like the following clip seem to reinforce that opinion.

References I'd barely paid attention to declared Twitter to be amusing for personal use, to which I just shook my head. So what? I'm wasting enough time in cyberspace already, so what's the big deal about Twitter? Even though I ignored them, I began to see postscripts somewhere on the home page of reputable publications or blogs or organizations that said, "Follow us on Twitter." Seriously? What would they say in a short sentence that wasn't said on their site? Until the middle of April, the most information I had picked up in spite of my disinterest led me to believe that Twitter was no more than an abbreviated social networking tool for the most ADHD or mindless among us. I just couldn't believe one could find anything of real value by becoming a twitterer.

So, what is Twitter? And why is it so popular, useful, amazing, informative, and why is it on the cutting edge of What's Happening? There are literally 450 million entries that appear in a Google search for "Twitter," but one of the most simply stated and informative articles about it is the Wikipedia entry I had not read until a few minutes ago. I've just begun to investigate Twitter from a personal point of view, but I'll tell you how it strikes me so far. The possibilities are very, very interesting. But first, here's another clip: "What is Twitter?"

I hope you are reading the Wikipedia piece about Twitter cited above, because it all starts to get more interesting. Little did I know at first glimpse that Twitter could be – and is becoming – much, much more than silly stuff that means nothing. Of course it can be endless babbling output and mindless trivia, but it can also serve more important purposes. For starters, Twitter is in real time and can be an instant news feed from anywhere in the world about any subject. News that once had to wait for the morning paper or evening news or that had to accumulate enough to create a breaking news story can now be instantly updated second by second from multiple sources feeding in to a central network. It is Information Central; indeed, it is like a global ticker tape.

A user becomes his or her own Google in a way, and can focus on whatever the user's concerns, be they lowly or lofty. A journalist can follow every single news gathering organization in existence (that has a Twitter account), or any/every subject pertinent to his or her general or specific interest, or varying interests categorized by the day, the hour, the moment. There is a Twitter search engine to focus on specific topics and trends. Don't want to read anyone's boring personal minutiae? Don't follow them. Want to know everything happening right now about anything, anywhere? Twitter search it. Want to know how to Twitter for business? Watch this. Here is a somewhat tongue-in-check hint of the possibilities in this 3-minute clip from Rocketboom, "The Twitter Global Mind," that accurately identifies raw communication as the essence of Twitter. For those who can appreciate it, Twitter is real-time virtual coverage of our world, and for this reason, I have had my come-to-Twitter moment.

"Twitter" was the buzzword that defined the recent International Symposium of Online Journalism held in Austin, Texas, held April 17-18. Participants came to the conference from around the world and brought their ideas with them. And they shared them. Almost to the last speaker, each mentioned Twitter as one of the most useful tools today in the publishing industry which, like the Ouroborus, is currently eating its own tail as it transitions from print journalism to cyberspace. As an aside, I just noticed how similar the symbol for Ouroborus is to the Foxfire logo. Compare.


Twitter was hands-down "it," the recurrent theme and surprisingly, the most-mentioned word of the symposium. Everybody was excited and twittering about Twitter, and one journalist said his life was changed; I'm assuming it might have something to do with the Twitter factor. The second-by-second output at the conference itself was even tweeted by eager and plugged-in attendees via laptops or cell phones to a network of international followers who were following the hashtag #isoj, the identifying acronym for the symposium's tweets. In a demonstration of what I thought was visionary wisdom, conference organizer Rosental Alves projected the constantly updating tweets on a huge screen on the stage behind the table of panelists so everyone could see Twitter in action. The running commentary at #isoj during the high points of the conference was repeatedly signified as one of the top ten trending topics on all of Twitter.

If the winning buzzword at the symposium was Twitter, honorable mention went to "citizen journalism," and the two go hand-in-hand. The growing power of citizen journalism has been well demonstrated during breaking or ongoing news events such as the eruption of violence in Myanmar as the junta responded to monk-led protests in September of 2007. The junta shut down the media and Internet service, but those present at the time, some of them ordinary citizens, were able to get news out to the world via satellite connections.

CNN declared the November 2008 Mumbai siege "the day that social media appeared to come of age" because of the massive dissemination of information via Twitter, Twitpic, and other social networking tools by victims of the attack, bystanders and the public. Firsthand reporting by non-professionals instantly tags those who report as citizen journalists. Though the unedited, unconfirmed reports can be controversial, the sheer numbers can create a self-correcting check and balance, in the opinion the symposium panelists. Once denigrated, the value of citizen journalism is at this point undisputed even by the most exclusive and exalted publications. Last week I noticed for the first time a solicitation for personal accounts and photos alongside a Swine Flu story on http://washingtonpost.com. WaPo listed e-mail addresses, its Twitter name, and other contact information.

As social media begins to impact the formal world of knowledge, the gatekeepers to conventional wisdom and information are finding it not only prudent but also necessary to unbar the door, lest they be crushed by the onslaught of overwhelming amounts of evidence, rapid dissemination of information, and quickly codifying consensuses about what is happening. It is no longer enough to say our world is changing. It has already changed. Here's a vision by singer/songwriter Eliza Gildyson called "Beautiful World." You can listen to sample clips, and I recommend all of them. However, if you only have time for two or three, try the mesmerizing title cut, "Beautiful World," the clever and strangely nostalgic and futuristic "Unsustainable," and the joyful "Emerald Street."

Our much-longed-for global mind is beginning to think for itself as those with access to the rapidly proliferating synapses of social media find themselves all a'twitter. I've discarded my skepticism and suddenly feel inspired about the way things are going to have to go, which will be irrepressibly aided by things previously unseen and undreamt of in our philosophy.

By the way……Follow us on Twitter! - http://www.twitter.com/djournalist

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© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.

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