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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