Twitter is my Newspaper: explaining twitter to newbies

I’m frequently asked about technology, the internet and web 2.0 and in the course of the discussion the subject of Twitter inevitably arises. People are frequently curious, often judgmental, and almost always bewildered by the service. This isn’t surprising, Twitter is poorly understood despite its relative success (and its success is still small in the grand scheme of internet related things). Part of this is because people (even early adopters) are still figuring twitter out, and part of this is because those frequently explaining it don’t understand it themselves (I’m looking at you newspaper columnists).

Most often I sense people misunderstand Twitter because they compare it to a text based internet tool they do know: e-mail. This reference point shapes their assumptions about Twitters purpose and leads them to ask questions like: how can you read all those tweets? or how can you “follow” 250 people? If the unsaid assumption is that twitter creates 2000 new emails a day to read – well no surprise they’re running for the hills! This is doubly true if you believe the myth that all people tweet about (and thus read) is their breakfast menu, or what they are doing in a given moment.

Twitter is not email and while it has many (evolving) uses I’ve found the best metaphor for explaining how my friends and I use it is a much simpler technology: the newspaper.

Few people read every (or even most) articles in a newspaper – indeed most of us just scan the headlines when we see a newspaper. Likewise, very few people read all their tweets. Indeed, many of us go days (guilt free) without ever looking at the newspaper – same with Twitter, many people go days without looking at their twitter feed. The difference is that your newspaper’s headlines only change once a day and it is awkward to carry the thing around with you. Twitter’s headlines are always changing, and its located on your blackberry or iphone.

Now the difference from email becomes more clear. There is no obligation – or even expectation – of readership with Twitter. Emails you have to (or are supposed to) read and, let’s face it, are often a chore to get through. Newspaper articles you choose to read, often for pleasure or consumption.

Indeed, as Taylor and I outlined in Missing the Link, Twitter is better than a newspaper in many ways since you get to choose the columnists whose headlines you’ll scanning. Whereas a newspaper brings together articles, ideas and information someone else thinks you should care about Twitter brings together the ideas, articles and information by people you care about. I follow a number of “thought leaders” people like Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Andrew Potter, Tim O’Reilly, David Weinberger, etc… along with some friends and colleagues. While they occasionally say short pithy things, they are usually linking to articles that they find interesting. In short, some of the smartest people I know, and some I don’t, are essentially creating a vetted reading list for me. This virtual community is my news editor.

Better still, I don’t always have a newspaper on me. But an endless stream of articles vetted by smart people is always just a click away so whenever I have a spare moment – on the bus, in line at the grocery store, or waiting for a taxi – I can pull up some interesting reading material I would otherwise never have read.

I don’t claim this is Twitter’s only use, so it’s not complete, comprehensive explanation, but I’ve found this explanation has helped a number of my non-web savvy friends to “get” Twitter.

25 thoughts on “Twitter is my Newspaper: explaining twitter to newbies

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  3. georgeweyman

    I like the metaphor Twitter is a personalized gateway to other content on the web. Can't remember where I heard that.

  4. MadameDotty

    This is a great post. I couldn't agree with you more. I too felt awkward when I first started using Twitter and it took me a couple of months for me to “get” it. But once that “enlightenment” came (lol) it became addictive. I have noticed as of late I am always aware of the latest breaking news, even trade gossip, hours before it is printed on newspapers or broadcast on TV because…I heard it on Twitter first. Also, whereas I only read the Guardian for national news, Twitter allows me to pick up juicy or controversial articles done by the other nationals without me having to buy or skim through all of them. Yes, I hear some people saying: “But you could find these things out on the Internet anyway. Or, just google the topic you're interested in.” But Twitter communication is faster than you looking up on the Internet (the information is only one click away as the link is on the tweet) and, as you say, it's already been “vetted” by people in the know, so it saves you skimming time. Twitter is my newspaper too. Those who think it's a “chat room” for vacuous conversation about what they had for breakfast are missing out on the sweet “dessert” aspect of it. :)

  5. Kim Feraday

    OK it seems lately I'm always the dissenter on your posts. But using twitter as an information feed is useful but misses one of the most important uses — as a means of participating in asynchronous conversations. The other point I would make with respect to newspapers is that if this is the only mechanism you use to get information then you're going to have a very myopic view of the world. There will be no dissonant opinions or new perspectives. That's one of the most useful services newspapers provide (at least until social search becomes a lot better). They vet other points of view and information that I might not go out of my way to find myself.

  6. David Eaves

    Kim, thank you for the post. I think you've taken my newspaper metaphor literally. I'm not saying the Twitter is a newspaper – I'm saying that it how people use a newspaper is a helpful metaphor for explaining how many people use twitter. I don't disagree that it can be used as a means for participating in asynchronous conversations but in my experience (and observing others) this represents a tiny fraction of its use. How many tweets that come through your feed are part of a conversation you actively participate in 1-2%? If that? Moreover, asynchronous conversations is what email does – which is precisely why this use case is the worst way to explain twitter since people feel they need to read all their emails – they very opposite feeling they should have about tweets. Talking about twitter as a vehicle for asynchronous conversations – I suspect – increases misunderstanding about why the technology is valuable.On a completely separate note – I also strongly disagree that newspapers provide dissonant opinions. At best newspapers are the vehicles for the bland – vetting opinions that will not offend or overly challenge anyone. At worst (and more common) they are ideologically focused and so don't provide diversity: you rarely see highly conservative views in the NYT or liberal views in the Wall Street Journal. I simply can't concede that newspapers offer more diversity than twitter. Indeed, quite the opposite. With a newspaper subscription you choose a perspective and are stuck with it. With twitter you can choose to subscribe to as many people with different and opposing perspectives as you wish. In both cases the choice is the readers – but the offering on twitter is much, much, much, more diverse.

  7. Rebecca Wheeler

    What a brilliant analogy. I'm sure I'll be using it in the future to explain how and why I use Twitter to those that don't “get” it.Have you come across The Twitter Times (a personalised online newspaper that pulls its content from your Twitter connections)? I think it's a nice example of just how accurate and relevant your Twitter-is-my-newspaper analogy is! I wrote a blog about The Twitter Times that you might find interesting if you have time to read it:….

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  15. Anonymous

    its with all new technologies. when things are new we rush behind it and after some time we actually suck those things that we need. with twitter it is the same thing and i agree its not possible to suck the whole feed that comes from ur network of 500 followers. that’s why its better to have few and follow them rather than just jumping and clicking follow. no words on the metaphor that u have drawn, amazing and twitter is anytime better than newspaper.i can decide what i would love to read on twitter unlike newspaper :)

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