When I was in the engine room of journalism — the Fleet Street office of an international financial news agency — 66 characters was the length of a headline.

That’s all that would fit onto one line of computer screen. Ten words or so could send a market into a tailspin, and your pension fund with it. But this practice of modern finance — the trading on news headlines — is less horrifying than what the world is learning about money since the sub-prime meltdown was followed by the August credit crunch.

I was reminded of those 66 characters when considering adding a Twitter service to this blog (see sidebar under “what’s making me twitchy“). Twitter is a short-message social networking tool that allows the twitterer to “micro-blog” his “followers” through different platforms, including instant messaging and mobile phone text messages. The message length, in keeping with mobile texting, is 140 characters.

If you recoil from this idea (as I would because I don’t text or IM that much), then pause a little to consider the devastating way that beatblogger and citizen journalism advocate David Cohn used the service when his request for an interview with Craig Newmark of Craigslist was granted, with just 30 minutes to prepare. [For the uninitiated, craigslist has decimated the classified advertising business and the traditional local newspaper model, starting from one geek's mailing list of local events. Newmark is a business black swan to you, if you are a journalist or publisher.]

What David did was this:-

Think Quick David!

One of the first things I did was send out a twitter message: ‘Interviewing Craig Newmark (craigslist) in 30 minutes. Anyone got any questions for him?’

I received five responses, including two from Ryan Budke and Ryan Sholin who opened up entirely new angles towards the interview (thanks!).”

David applied what I might call a classic Scott Page methodology. He had a problem: a high profile interview, and a shortage of time to figure out how to exploit the opportunity. He quickly polled a diverse network of 100 or so of his followers to get his questions. Volume of response did not matter, but the quality did. And by his account, it came through.

This was all quite public — probably a reflection of David’s age, fearlessness, comfort and experience with the tools and community he has around him. But even behind closed doors within news organizations I suspect this kind of openness and collaboration remains rare.

It reminded me of the way I’d used instant messaging within the corporate firewall to structure networks of journalistic and market expertise. So that in similar circumstances, where time was short or a subject was particularly complex, questions and intelligent directions could be pooled from a diverse group of reporters and analysts. If you are going to interview a central banker on some complex regulatory or monetary phenomenon, it’s best to hunt as a pack.

All of this, of course, resulted from something that would seem inane to the casual observer. mIRC, the tool our technicians provided, was known simply as “chat” in the ‘90s and its use then was not primarily corporate, let alone journalistic. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, there was a function whereby you could invoke the comedy gods of Monty Python and slap your correspondent around the face with a trout. Since then, the world (especially kids) has got used to IM through Microsoft’s MSN Messenger.

I can’t be the first person to have wondered whether the value of a technology as a tool is now inversely correlated to the stupidity of its name. It started with Yahoo, then Google, continued with the now ever-present “blog” and “wiki”. The arrival of Twitter in the geek lexicon is bound therefore to vex those whose natural instinct is to give technology — and especially the new social networking forums — a wide berth.

But, for nostalgia’s sake, I’m going to play with Twitter and see if it brings this blog, you or me any value. I expect there will be status updates of where you might find me, quick references to stories I’ve seen, or perhaps sometimes, just like David Cohn, I’ll send out an APB asking for help. Sometimes I will try to be inane too ;-) .

To understand Twitter and how to sign up and some innovative uses, go here.

To see how it is being used in a literary game to write a group story and could be used in education, visit Ewan McIntosh’s edu.blogs. Here’s a suggestion from Ewan himself, which I liked:-

If schools can get over themselves a bit in relation to the use of mobile phones for learning, this would be a great way to get some creative writing underway during the Christmas holidays, or simply as an ongoing ‘starter-for-ten’ exercise to get students tuned into their writing. You could do it for Modern Foreign Languages, too, especially as a ‘fun’ alternative to some of the drier work in advanced language courses.

(By the way, my favourite recent technology — and I’m still toying with whether to sign up — is smugmug, an excellent pro photo and video management site that seems to have a lot going for it over the ubiquitous Flickr, to which the knackered hack is still just an amateur signatory. Does anyone know if smugmug allows you to make a badge like the Flickr one in the sidebar here?)

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9 Responses to “66 characters in search of a story”  

  1. 1 Digidave

    Thanks for the nod.

    I think you are right that this kind of openness is still rare – but increasingly it is becoming the norm. Perhaps it’s because I grew up with MySpace and such – to me it seemed perfectly natural to poll my twitter friends – most of whom I know would be interested in asking Craig a question or two.

  2. 2 knackeredhack

    Dave, my feeling is that opportunity exists for those in news who can accelerate that openness and bridge the experience gap to those who don’t have that kind of collaborative ethic wired in. That’s where the arbitrage value is, if you will. Grey hairs are useful to have around, especially in the more challenging business environment we’ll face in the foreseeable future. But equally, that is what gets lost first of all when industries consolidate and costs are cut; that diversity of perspective is reduced.

    Thanks for showing us all how to exploit it. It’s been years since I had to file a “one-liner”. Now I get to do it all over again, and for fun!

  3. 3 Gary Burge

    As a former journalist, I suggest that Twiiter is like a lead paragraph — with no story following. Or perhaps, instead, a continuation to a serial jump page of Twits by others who jumped on the theme.

    Are you aware of the “frozen pea” meme that has popped up on Twitter in the past 48 hours? Similar to David Cohn’s request for Craig’s List questions, a group of Twitterers has started a support group for Susan Reynolds, who is facing breast cancer surgery today. The theme is the packages of frozen peas that Susan and others apply to sore parts of their bodies to soothe pain.

    Susan Reynolds is @susanreynolds on Twitter and her blog is at http://susanreynolds.blogs.com/boobsonice/. Supporters are posting “Pea-vatars”, or pictures of themselves as pea-avatars on the Flicker group “Frozen Pea Friday” at http://flickr.com/groups/frozenpeafriday/.

    I find it amazing that a group of people who have never met Susan, myself included, would rally around her in virtual support. To me, this is the “real” social networking, while Facebook is just window dressing on a much more powerful and global concept.

  4. 4 Stormy

    It will be interesting to see if Twitter remains one big audience or whether you get to start selecting subgroups for each message like in IM.

  5. 5 knackeredhack

    Gary, I think you’re right. It is the way the tool gets used that matters. I’d not appreciated the value of Flickr until I wanted to create a photo narrative of a care home visit for one of our poorly relatives to share with overseas family. Slowly, I’m backing into more vanilla uses. Poor Susan, my thoughts are with her.

    Stormy, fragmenting Twitter relationships into subgroups sounds great, certainly if it were to be applied in the same way I used mIRC. What mIRC would do for me as a manager was provide a dashboard into organizational communication. But I’m still very much a novice in my use and understanding of how individuals and organizations might apply Twitter. At the moment it refuses to integrate with Gtalk, and I find I’m not alone in that difficulty.

  1. 1 James Governor’s Monkchips » links for 2007-12-21
  2. 2 Norilsk, Siberia, the heart of darkness and a Journey of a Lifetime » knackeredhack
  3. 3 crowdsourcing my telecaster » knackeredhack
  4. 4 bear stearns footnote » knackeredhack

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