Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Twitter can be the game changer

Yesterday I experienced something of a lightbulb moment relating to the future role of Twitter in the production and consumption of media communications.

I love Twitter. I signed up early but it took a bit of peer pressure (thanks Frode) to turn me into the -114 follower twitterer I am today.

I've been immersed in the information revolution for as long as it has been possible for someone of my generation to be so — starting with a Computer Studies AO-level back in 1983 — but there's always been a fail-safe system of leery scepticism operating in parallel to any guileless, early-adopter enthusiasm: Is this technology truly indispensable? Does it complicate my life? What are the hidden costs? Is it for some people, not others?

I taught my 82-year-old father how to use email and he now uses it almost daily, revealing an ability to express himself with concise and witty prose messages that I'd been missing out on. But he doesn't really get blogging or microblogging, in the same way he doesn't really get modern advertising post-Ogilvy, with its emphasis on lifestyles over product benefits.

But yesterday it suddenly became clear to me how Twitter really does have the potential to change everything, at least for those of us that have grown up with the necessary information filtering skills (and inclinations).

My professional interests include the interpretation of the role of media in shaping the discourse of organisations, in particular through the identiification of patterns — or networks — of influence.

Up until now the starting point for the 'social' analysis of any piece of content would be a semantic one: algorithms made to carve up text into extractable entities such as the names of individuals — journalists, politicians, spokespeople — who could be assumed to participate within affective complexes of authority and influence.

These names and other keywords would then be fed through further software machines in order to identify and map out these associations and their amplification effects in meaningful ways.

Back in the day, the networks of influence were implicit, but essentially invisible until the majority of content assumed digital form, and even then further software number-crunching was required.

Then, when social networks appeared on the scene, some of the relationships started to become, in effect, hard coded, and so the would-be media analyst was about to get something at least for free.

Newspaper articles in online form have URLs which can now be shared via social media such as Facebook and Twitter (as opposed to the more private medium of email) and the open nature of the latter platform in particular means that it becomes comparatively straightforward to analyse / visualise the relationship between a particular piece of content and particular networks of 'friends'. Tweets thus appeared to be another important media phenomenon to be tracked, but as not all readers of content shared it with their 'friends', this was going to be another string to our bow rather than a whole new mode of combat.

Well, that's how it seemed to me until yesterday when I came across the New York Times's experimental Timespeople Twitter function. This is the game changer...

For if content itself becomes a node (or even a hub) within the social network, then all the relationships are finally joined up electronically. And in theory, any reader who has become a friend of the publisher will leave an electronic trace of the influence exerted by a particular article (plus a trail to their own social network) simply by reading it. No URL-sharing required.

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