Sunday, July 5, 2009

Twitter, Facebook, Etc. -- Talkin' About a Revolution

What separates humans from other animals? You could say the opposable thumb, bipedal locomotion or a highly developed cerebral cortex.

Yeah, I'll give you all those, but think about this. What just happened? I wrote. You read. You heard my words in your head and, with any luck, comprehended my meaning.

We communicated, because that's what people do. Unless they're in solitary confinement or have some other serious issue, it's what people do every day. We can't help ourselves. We love to share information, whether in words or pictures or both.

Any bit of new technology that helps people do this is bound to be a smash, whether it's using charcoal to draw the elk you just ate on the cave wall or using Twitter to send a picture of your lunch to millions of strangers.

You may ask, what is Twitter? For that matter, what is Facebook? What is MySpace? What is social media?

If you do ask, just click on the links above, do a little reading, and come back.

I'm not here to give a history of social media, but to share a few recent experiences with it that just blew my mind.

Now, I'm a slow adopter of new things. I'm not a Luddite by any means, nor am I a gadget freak. I'm all about the utility. As soon as I can figure out how to make something work for me -- and make it worth the effort I need to put into it -- I'll jump in.

As a journalist and a blogger, I decided last year that it was time to dive into Twitter, and this year I also launched on Facebook. For a while, both of them were entertaining and a novelty, then things began to happen that opened my eyes to the possibilities of these new communication and networking mediums.

In January, I sat in a hotel ballroom participating in press panels during the biannual Television Critics Association press tour (that's the day job). I and several other reporters in the room provided a continuous stream of tweets (the word for Twitter messages) that offered anyone following them a word picture of what was happening in the press conference, including funny moments and celebrity quotes.

It allowed non-journalists to feel like they were there, without trying to actually go there and being taken away by burly security guards.

The next month, I livetweeted a car chase in Los Angeles, following the story live, on TV and online until the end, and turned it into a blog post.

These are just small examples of how Twitter can be used to cover events of any kind, whether personal or news. Various Twitter tools -- such as TinyURL and TwitPic -- allow users to share not only 140 characters of text, but links, photos and video.

In essence, you can become your own little news feed (and there are those also on Twitter, and when they say @BreakingNews, they mean it).

Whether you're sharing your travel travails on an airline odyssey, lounging by the beach in Cabo, attending a Jonas Brothers concert or running for your life in the middle of a revolution on the streets of Tehran, Twitter lets people share the smallest and largest events possible.

And, aside from the cost of a computer or cellphone and Internet access, it's free.

Without Twitter and Facebook, it's likely that very little of the recent post-electoral unrest and violence in Iran -- especially the shooting of a young woman, captured on video -- would have become known to the outside world.

Because Twitter, Facebook and other social media operate from cellphones as well as computers, they're easily updated -- even in motion -- and difficult to shut down.

And because the news is coming from anybody and everybody, rather than through the journalism pipeline, it's disseminated in real time.

On the day infomercial king Billy Mays died, I learned it from his son, or, as he's known on Twitter, @youngbillymays, who tweeted that his dad had not woken up that morning. I shot an email to the publicist for Mays' Discovery Channel show "Pitchmen," and my blog post was well underway before the news appeared my TV.

Last Friday, former vice-presidential candidate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced she was resigning the office later this month, catching the journalistic world by surprise. While anything Palin says or does is big news, she's not all that fond of the news media in return.

So, rather than just having her comments filtered out through reporters and spokespeople, Palin has used her Twitter and Facebook accounts to communicate directly to her supporters -- and therefore to the world at large.

During the election last fall, now-President Obama used social media extensively to communicate with voters and volunteers and build his campaign organization.

These days, with practically every member of Congress -- including Obama's septuagenarian opponent, Sen. John McCain -- Twittering about their political adventures, the idea the politicians need news media alone to get their message out seems well and truly dead.

And lest you think that journalists are entirely left behind in this, several are making extensive use of social media, whether it's ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper tweeting back photos from Moscow as he heads there ahead of the president, or Fox News Channel religion correspondent Father Jonathan Morris using Facebook to discuss his latest fish-out-of-water appearance with the merry pranksters of FNC's latenight comedy-news show "RedEye W/Greg Gutfeld."

On the flip side, because it doesn't go through journalistic filters, whatever news appears through social media is raw and unverified. The potential for propaganda, or even outright hoaxes, is huge. Eyewitness and firsthand accounts are compelling, but as any prosecuting attorney will tell you, hard facts often trump a tale, no matter how well-told.

Social media is still in its infancy, and new technology, acquisitions and mergers -- Twitter seems to be in the news every other day as being courted by one buyer or another -- may drastically and quickly change the landscape.

Even with all this technology, social media is about human social interaction, and a few basic rules still apply:

Nobody likes a liar or a gossip (but some folks may pay them well if they have gossip about a celebrity).

A little courtesy goes a long way.

Think long and hard before you post anything you wouldn't want your mom, your boss, your significant other or your lawyer to read.

Also think long and hard before allowing the world to know that you can't spell and have poor grammar. Better not to write and be thought a functional illiterate than to put hands to keyboard and remove all doubt.

Don't be boring. You'd think, with Twitter's 140-character limit, that wouldn't be possible, but trust me, it is.

Lastly, if you're one of those people whining that all this social media claptrap is just so must time-wasting stuff, nonsense and poppycock, be aware that someone has probably said that about every advance in communication in human history, from the charcoal to the printing press to the telephone.

Not everyone will have a need for these tools, but whether you use them or not, they will change the world you live in. And, the less you complain about how stupid they are, the less you'll have to take back if you start using them.