On Twitter’s birthday, it subtly reminded me how indispensable it is

By Richard Nieva , written on March 22, 2013

From The News Desk

At the LAUNCH conference earlier this month, Twitter cofounder Ev Williams talked about the decision the company made in 2009 to change the prompt in the Tweet text box from “What are you doing?” to “What’s going on?”

“It’s an information network, not a social network,” he said. “It’s also a social network to a degree, and that’s what people use it for, but what we really wanted to emphasize was real-time information.”

Those words were running through my head last night at a cafe as I tried to juggle work with Twitter-gazing while the Harvard-New Mexico basketball game played muted on a TV in the corner. For those of you who didn't catch it, it was a stunner. Harvard, the 14th seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, would go on to beat New Mexico, the 3rd seed, 68 to 62, winning its first tourney game ever and giving us this year’s first March Madness upset.

It gave me pangs of FOMO as my Twitter feed blew up, but instead of X-ing out the tab in my browser, I sucked it up because I needed to do my job as a reporter: keep up with breaking news. And that's the point: In its seven years, Twitter, with all its warts, has become indispensable for journalists and citizen news junkies. This is not the first time someone has offered up that thought, but leave it to college hoops to drive the point home.

Why the fear of missing out? Because I didn’t fill out a bracket. And March Madness is one of my single favorite times of the year. I lost track of time the day before and didn’t get around to it, and once the tourney starts, pools are closed. So for the next 16 days, Twitter will be a sad reminder of my poor time management. "But Rich, you can still fill out a bracket just for your personal pleasure," you say? Nope. Not the same. You're missing the fun of trash talk and the glorious/pointless allure of winning it all.

Now, in the great pantheon of life’s burdens, watching people have fun without you on Twitter is prime #firstworldproblem territory. And I probably sound like a Nick Hornby character right now. It’s clearly not as powerful an example of Twitter's magnitude as Egyptian revolutionaries using it to communicate, or @ReallyVirtual, a Pakistani man, inadvertently live-Tweeting the raid on Osama Bin Laden. But in its own small way, it proves the point: Twitter has become one of our greatest assets for the expediency of information.

It’s fitting that this experience occurred on Twitter’s birthday, emphasizing just how much the service has grown to be a staple part of our media consumption. Of course, it creates little wrinkles from time to time, and we’re still figuring out how this whole second screen thing will work.

Twitter is used to bearing the brunt of complaints when live events are broadcast. For example, during the Summer Olympics, people were Tweeting the results of sporting events, but NBC delayed airing them until prime time. The whole exchange exposed the silliness of airing the sporting events on a time delay. And of course, every pre-taped awards show is spoiled for a west coast audience that is also watching Twitter.

Back at LAUNCH, Williams also talked about taking advantage of what the Internet is best at: bringing people together to create things better than they could create them by themselves. He was actually talking about his new project, Medium, another type of blogging platform. But I can think of no better way to apply the concept than to Twitter and real-time news. At it's best, using the service is the easiest way to get a complete picture of breaking news. The only way to do that is to make sure you're following compelling people. And an app like ShadowMe can show you the Tweets of who those compelling people are following.

So Ev was right. Real-time information is that valuable. But for now, it’s real-time information that's imperative for me to scour to be on my reporting game, mixed with real-time information that breaks my basketball-loving heart.

Happy Belated, Twitter. For good measure, we’ll end with my favorite Tweet from last night:

[Image courtesy: Will Clayton]