A lot of journalists have suddenly discovered Twitter, which figured prominently in some coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks. And many are baffled. Here's my simple explanation of Twitter:
It's like a big caffeine party. Everybody's talking at once. Really fast.
But you have magic ears.
You only hear the people you want to listen to, and the people who are saying something directly to you. This gives you a great deal of control over the quality of what you hear. If someone is irritating and trivial, just quit listening to them.
There's more to the technology, of course, and there are nifty features like SMS interaction and hashtags and search. But the important thing is to focus on people and what they say. It's who you know, who you listen to, who listens to you, and what you talk about.
Another service, Pownce, arguably had better technology, and it failed. I've had a Pownce account for quite awhile. Never interacted with anybody. Ever. Again, it's about people and what they say.
If you're a reporter, then people and what they say can be a pretty valuable resource -- if they're the right people saying things you find useful on your beat. If not, Twitter won't do a thing for you (except maybe provide a distraction).
Why do people use Twitter in the first place? That's simple: Humans are genetically programmed to thrive on conversation. Even humans of the male variety. But each of us only wants to engage in conversation that we personally find useful or interesting. That's why those magic ears are so important.
When the Mumbai attacks began, people I know and follow started talking about it. Often they linked to search.twitter.com, a tool that makes it possible to follow topics by looking for key words. So I began listening for anything about Mumbai, and amid the chatter, speculation and outright noise, I also found eyewitness accounts and links to photos being uploaded to Flickr. So Twitter became a news source.
That doesn't mean Twitter replaces the thing we know as journalism. It's just another enrichment of the media landscape.
A lot of news organizations are beginning to figure out how to use Twitter both in gathering and disseminating information. So far, I haven't seen any blowhard print columnists ranting about tweeters in pajamas. Let's keep it that way.
(By the way, you can follow me as @yelvington).