I’m a fairly recent Twitter convert, and at the moment there are two main reasons I’m sticking with it. First, it’s short, and second, it’s art.
I’ve failed to enjoy Facebook or work well with it for several years, preferring to do my moaning on my blog and my events management by email. Yes, I know, I should do better. That’s why I joined Twitter.
The interface is easy, keeping up with people you find intriguing or blogs you want to keep tabs on is suddenly very simple, and you can engage as much or as little as you fancy.
All of which is lovely, but it’s not why I like it so much – it’s not why it works. The best and most innovative thing Twitter has done is forced us to condense communication into short bursts – to crystallise. To be brief.
Twitter’s 140-character limit forces poetry from mundanity. It’s possible to build a tweet around a single thought, a concept, without over-egging it or forcing it. It rewards neatness. Even “pointless babble” becomes a crystal of meaning, complete in itself.
And people are using the microblogging format for all sorts of textual art, from condensing words down to fit within the strict limits to haiku to artistic political satire, such as William Shatner’s Tonight Show recital of Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed. The medium even spawned the world’s first interactive poetry competition.
Mashablelaid out the reasons for loving the character limit very neatly and persuasively, but didn’t mention the possibility of poetry.
Twitter is forcing us to distill our words, and words distilled can make art.
If you’re interested in personal development as a journalist, I’d really recommend taking a bit of time to read the first post in Adam Westbrook’s6×6 series – and, I imagine, all the others too once they’re up. It’s on branding yourself online and in real life, with common sense tips.
There’s some excellent advice and some useful sources, and it’s given me a project idea – I’m going to be building my own website, learning/relearning/honing my CSS, HTML and hopefully Flash skills as I go along.
Today, like a fair few other British journalism trainees, I ended up on Hold The Front Page, glued to the examiners’ comments on this season’s NCE results in the vague and desperate hope that there would be some magical alchemical formula there to help me pass the exams.
There wasn’t (that won’t stop me doing it again in three months’ time) but there were a few interesting points in there that gave me some pause for thought.
Apparently, the pass rate has fallen by 16% but 50% more people are sitting the exams. Because of the way the exams work – they are supposed to come after 18 months of training – that makes me wonder what started to happen 18 months ago that prompted the massive upsurge in trainee numbers.
It also makes me feel sorry for those that aspire to print journalism, because for most, if they aren’t already working, they probably won’t get work in print any time soon. Most of them will be going it alone, and while that has its advantages it’s not easy or cheap.
The examiners’ comments, though, are fascinating. According to the senior news report examiner:
Those who did not pass should take note of the skills needed by a reporter in a 21st century newsroom. Publishers quite rightly have a focus on changing technology but core journalistic skills must not be forgotten. It does not matter what platform is being used to tell a story, the basics must still be there.
In today’s crowded market where there are so many news outlets, it is important to get the best story, the story that will make your publication stand out and be the first that readers will trust.
Another comment from the newspaper practice examiner:
Anecdotally we hear that reporters are increasingly tied to their desks and unable to get out to cover stories. If this is the case it may be that they are not amassing enough experience to do themselves justice on the practice questions.
I understand that the NCTJ has standards to uphold, but it’s difficult to reconcile the newsroom reality with what the examiners are saying.
We’re told to write for web first, print second, and time is paramount – it is more important to have the first story on the web, the most SEO-friendly and up-to-date, than it is to have beautifully crafted prose. Some of us are learning to report for the web, not print, and it requires a completely different writing style that doesn’t seem to pass muster with the examiners.
Many of us write many stories twice or three times or more, in multiple styles for multiple platforms and papers, and that ties us to desks – spending more time writing leaves less for reporting. And redundancies are forcing us to write more stories and report in person on less, so we have to do phone work and pick up stories that not long ago we would have staffed.
I’m glad the examiners have noticed this, but I’m confused about how we’re meant to get the skills we need to pass – and whether it’s worth it.
If the newsroom priorities have changed, what’s required of us has changed, the skills we need and the training goals and methods have changed, why aren’t the exams changing to reflect this?
A study (warning, PDF) was published recently by Pear Analytics looking at Twitter usage, which found that more than 40% of all tweets are “pointless babble”. It’s a startling result – I for one was expecting a much higher percentage of spam and links posts – but I’m fascinated by the idea that a type of communication making up such a large proportion of a medium is defined as “pointless”.
The study authors defined six groups – news, spam, self-promotion, conversational, pass-along value and pointless babble – and babble is the only one that carries a value judgement. “Pointless babble” is a biased description, and I’m not sure why the authors of a statistical study decided to pass judgement on their data – or whether they even realised that’s what they were doing.
The implication is that we shouldn’t be babbling, we should be doing something else instead. No one wants to know whether you’re eating a sandwich or on a train – this is babbling, minutiae, and therefore without purpose – pointless.
For many Twitter users, someone else’s conversational tweets are often uninteresting unless they are directed at you, whereas your friend tweeting that their bus is stuck in traffic might be very relevant if they’ve arranged to meet you in half an hour. Sometimes status updates are far from pointless – “out of hospital, all’s well” is a long way from a pointless post even if it’s not directed at anyone in particular.
And I suspect, but can’t prove except with this very study, a lot of people use Twitter like Facebook status updates, following people rather than friending them and using the site as an easily-accessible Facebook lite. The description of that usage as “pointless” seems more than a little harsh – particularly when you’ve just found that 40.55% of the site is examples of that type of usage.
Many of these utterances are the sort of speech that human beings use to remind each other, and themselves, that they are still alive. It’s a way of keeping in touch without saying anything, akin to talking about the weather (if you’re English, of course). Rather than calling it pointless, wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask why this use is so common, and whether it’s a feature of Twitter rather than a bug?
There are a couple of other question marks for me about this study – why did the authors chose not to sample tweets on Saturday or Sunday? Why didn’t they sample between 5pm and 11am CST – that’s 11pm-5pm GMT, neatly missing the daytime usage of a lot of non-American folks? Did they include non-English language tweets?
But those are methodology quibbles, when my main problem with the study is the way it demeans a form of communication as “pointless” without asking whether or not it has a point. I don’t know if it does, but I’d retweet any study that had a go at finding out.
Vadim Lavrusik over at Mashable has a post up detailing 12 things newspapers should be doing in order to survive. I’m going to try and start this blog on a positive note – I get enough “print journalism is doomed / ad revenue will never recover / there’s no way out of the decline / we’re all doomed” at work – and talking about how to survive the digital revolution seems like a good start.