April 21st 2013 - I knew why I was feeling so tired when a colleague of mine who is currently in the US asked me by email if I was Boston: „You twitter so intensively and so late at night that I thought you must be on Boylston Street.“ I can only hope I didn't really give anyone the impression via Twitter that I was in Boston when in fact I was in Berlin. (I don't think I did.) But in a way being on Twitter is akin to „being there“ – only that the „there“ is not a physical place but a debate revolving around such a physical place and something that's going on there. On Twitter I can chose whose messages about that particular going-on I want to expose myself to. By doing so, I willfully expose myself to an unfiltered stream of messages – some true, many wrong, most half-half. As long as I bear that in mind, Twitter is a grand medium.
Of course it is also a mind boggling medium. Just think about how people on Friday starting live tweeting Police scanner info, leading to the Boston Police requesting people to refrain from doing so (passed on via Twitter) for fear that the fugitive might learn about police positions via Twitter. More real time experience is hardly possible any other way.
At the same time that episode hints at the potential power of Twitter – in both ways, good and bad. On the one hand you had Bostonians offering shelter and help via Twitter to those effected by Monday's bombing. On the other hand you have preachers of hate constantly disemminating and re-inforcing false, premature, biased and uninformed Pseudo-information – let't not forget, for example, that for many hours in parts of the Twitterverse first a Saudi and then an Indian student were „the“ culprits. Neither of them ever where suspects. Almost no-one on Twitter who re-tweeted that bullshit apologized. Of course not. Because all they wanted was that people believe it.
On the other hand, Twitter is just great to stay tuned to real news (as in: provided by proper journalists). Google news can't compete when you want to know what has just been published, anywhere in the world, on the particular issue you are interested in. Plus: you may receive the link via someone you know and trust, so you really want to check that article out because that person thought it important.
For parts of the past week I scanned Twitter and watched CNN in parallel. By comparison, CNN lost. It lost against MY Twitter feed, though. It may have won in comparison to other peoples' feeds. Because there is no single entity called Twitter. YOU are following but ONE of any number of possible debates and streams of messages. But in this regard one very valid question is: If I am really interested in an issue, like the Boston bombing and the ensueing manhunt, why would I wait for a journalist to pick up the news, produce and edit and launch it online, if I can simply and just as well follow the Police Department, the District Attorney, the FBI, etc. myself – and by doing so be the very first to receive their statements? (News outlets have to learn to think of ways of dealing with that. If something was on Twitter a half hour earlier, it it really still breaking news?)
Twitter though can be unreal at times – ironically, by way of it's built-in hyperrealism. In the case of Boston, one such moment was when Watertown was locked down and resident live tweeted from areas Journalists had no access to any longer -- but maybe even more so when a little later the fugitive's Twitter account became known, and suddenly his words, his thoughts were becoming part of the debate. Plus comments about them. Plus comments about them by people who claimed to have known him. (Of course the checking of such claims is left to you – which is whay Twitter is not a substitute for Journalism.) Twitter is, in a lot ways, best compared to tuning in to a stream of chatter of people you don't know. Like being able to eavesdrop on conversations. It's what people will say, much as in the analog world, withouth thinking too hard: „Have you heard...?“ – what follows may well be wrong, or half right, or even true. You have to able to deal with that, if you want to really use Twitter as a resource. But it can be fruitful. (Plus: Of course, speaking as a Journalist here, even wrong or hateful or willfully misleading Tweets can be interesting, as they also tell stories.)
In any case, here is why I love Twitter despite of all the hectic, the chaos, the unorderliness: I can be part of a global conversation, the limits of which I define. I like to expose myself to chatter as it can lead me towards valid information or avenues of inquiry worth persueing. But at the same time I cherish reasonable discussion and debate, which can also be found on Twitter. In my case, having been on the terrorism beat for over a decade, the latter means that I follow a number of international terrorism experts, many of whom (not all) I know personally from the real world. I want to know what they have to say. Twitter allows me to have a five day on-and-off debate with them without having to call them, one by one. What a resource!
Much of what I have said so far you all probably know and maybe you have experienced it in a similiar way. But I feel the urge to point out that I think it is unfair to discredit Twitter, as some do, for being generally too fast, too loud, too quick, too little cautious. The opposite is also true. There were times during the Boston crisis when the better experts on Twitter (and I could name more, but I want to particularly point out @azelin, @intelwire and @muradbatal) were soooo much better than what TV networks had on offer, that one question needs to be asked: Shouldn't these networks, rather then feel threatened by Twitter (as they seem to be) look at ways of how they could become better by following the right people on Twitter?
There may be little news in this post for many of you. But let me conclude by saying that as a Journalist with access to wire services, I preferred Twitter throughout the past week. Because I follow just the people I need to in order to not miss anything, to be in many many cases even be informed earlier.
Twitter of course is a better resource for gaining information than for sharpening your argument. I personally need times off Twitter to contemplate. But I love Twitter. Even if it is redundant, exhausting, intensive, loud and immediate. I simply find too much valuable info, debate and input in it that I wouldn't get any other way. Plus: Some Tweeps are just great people to hang out with, even digitally.
PS: This post is an adapted version of a German language blog post I wrote for my blog at @zeitonline, the website of the weekly newspaper I work for, DIE ZEIT.