I had another Thought Paper due in Grad School today, which means you all get to read another navel-gazing meta post about online journalism. Or not - I mean, obviously you don't have to read, but you'll risk hurting my feeling. I'm currently trying to figure out where Twitter fits into all of this.
The essay is after the jump.
A little background is necessary to understand the situation. A few months ago, the CEO of SB Nation launched a friendly contest to see which member blog could be the first to acquire 5000 Twitter followers. The idea was to leverage the competitive nature of sports bloggers to get more people on board with Twitter, and to get some real world experience as to what works in acquiring followers. The Colorado Buffaloes blog, The Ralphie Report, won the SBNation Twitter 5K, and the Ralphie bloggers got the dubious honor of writing the Twitter Best Practices document for the company.
The author of the "Twitter Standards and Ethics" email questioned some of their techniques, specifically the goal of followers for followers sake (though of course that was the point of the contest). "On pt. 8 of [Ralphie's] strategy, he states a "Follower Binge", which I don't believe is positive for anybody trying to utilize twitter with their platform. They're following you back just because you're following them, not because the random entrepreneur from Australia is somehow a CU Buffs fan." It seems like a reasonable point - there's a question of quality versus quality here. There's even a tool called FakeFollowers you can use to see which of your followers might be Twitter spammers or otherwise just not that into you.
The email thread erupted into a discussion of how Twitter should be used. Is it bad form to only send automated Tweets from your blog? Is it a problem to only send Tweets containing hyperlinks (because FakeFollowers seems to think so)? What is really the best way to use Twitter to complement the blog? I suppose it's not surprising that there were different opinions on these important questions. But I was surprised by the near complete lack of consensus. We're a long way from having an actual set of "Best Practices."
Don't tell anyone, but here's some SBNation internal data on the growth of Twitter as a referrer of traffic from November 2008 through March 2009 (unfortunately I don't have any data more current than that). Impressive, right? Seems obvious that this is a huge wave that bloggers everywhere, and indeed all media, should be riding.
But, it's not really news that Twitter would be growing as a referrer - when Clips Nation was first launched Twitter didn't exist, so, sure, the growth since then has been literally incalculable. I think of myself as somewhat behind the curve on adopting Twitter within SBNation - but even so, Twitter is currently the 12th leading referrer network-wide, and it's the 12th leading referrer on Clips Nation as well. So Twitter traffic to Clips Nation is in line with the network, despite my relatively meager efforts (I wasn't really in the running in the 5K race, for instance).
But I wonder. How many of those referrals were going to wind up on SBNation blogs, with or without Twitter? The core audience for all of these blogs is the truly die-hard sports fan, who also happens to be an early adopter of new technology. That's why blog audiences exist to a large extent. There are some great tools on my blogging platform that allow me to use Twitter each time I post something to Clips Nation. I can write whatever blurb I want specific to Twitter (i.e. it doesn't simply re-use my blog post head line), it generates a short URL link, and I get a pithy little Tweet for almost no extra effort (clicking a check box and writing a couple of sentences). But one assumes that many if not most of my Twitter followers were already readers of Clips Nation, so they may be finding out about a new post in this way, but presumably they would have stopped by to read, with or without this new channel.
So the question isn't, are Twitter referrals increasing? Of course they are. The question is, is Twitter creating incremental traffic through a combination of more page views from existing members or by creating new members? One hopes so, but this number is much more difficult to measure.
I'm actually much more interested in Twitter from the Gillmorian, Grassroots Journalism standpoint - everyone is reporter. Zapruder had his 8mm camera in November 1963. By 1990 there were enough camcorders out there to supply a successful weekly TV show with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of guys getting hit in the crotch. And now there's a camera in every cell phone in every pocket. Twitter is the logical extension of that for the written word. The irony here is that I'm now part of the 'old technology' - I have my platform, I like it, it works for me. But the relative handful of printing presses was dwarfed by the number of people blogging, which will in turn be minuscule compared to the number of people Tweeting (or doing something similar when Twitter is replaced by the next big thing). How did the world find out that Timberwolves coach Kevin McHale had been fired? Wolves player Kevin Love broke the story on Twitter. Not a reporter, not a blogger - a player.
Fortunately for me, the limitations of the technology are baked in. Twitter by definition can't be 'long form', or even 'medium form' for that matter. I'm beginning to suspect that Twitter will supplement blogs more than they will complement them. It's a parallel development that has many uses, but it's advantages will have more impact on the way a blogger or reporter finds things to write about, as opposed to how he writes.
As often seems to be the case, I find myself with more questions than answers. But I think I'm understanding the questions better, which is a start.