Twitter has been called everything from a game-changing microblogging tool to a mind-boggling waste of time.
But the key to Twitter's success lies in the fact that users can subscribe to each other's tweets and receive them via their PDA's, their smart phones, as text messages, or in emails, or via the web.
It's an odd idea, but the funny (and with it's frequent outatges - infuriating) little web publishing tool caught on among the digirati during the uber-hip 2007 South by Southwest event and enjoys a still-growing popularity, espeically among the tech crowd who live in an always-on, always-connected universe and love the way Twitter allows you to connect instantly or asynchronously with your friends and followers wherever and whenever you are.
Twitter fans like to brag that users repeatedly break big news (earthquakes, election results) before the mainstream media, but I'm not sure just how much more useful is a tweet that announces "Holy crap - Earthquake!" as opposed to the US Geological Survey bulletin that arrives three minutes later with solid information about the epicenter and quake strength.
Still, newspapers jumped on the twitter bandwagon last year and by September almost 50 papers had accounts pinging readers with tweets that contained the latest headline and a link to the story as soon as they were posted to the web.
Ten months later and Erica Smith, a newspaper graphic designer and blogger has done some digging and turned up 303 newspaper Twitter accounts, offering a list of winners and losers based on their percentage gains from the previous month. (See the top ten list, below)
What really struck me, however, was how very few readers have signed up for this simple breaking news alert system. While the New York Times primary account has 5,199 followers, the average number is a paltry 131. Hell, you could almost telephone each one of them, if that's the numbers your service is pulling.
I'm not sure what to make of this: readers don't want breaking news fast? (I doubt it); They don't want to pay texting fees to get that news? (a real possibility for many); They just haven't heard of Twitter because they're not living inside the Tech bubble and echo chamber? (highly likely) or some combination of these and other reasons?
Does that mean newspapers shouldn't offer the service?
I don't think it means that at all. Using TwitterFeed or a similar service you can set this up at no cost to your company - it's a set and forget service that will keep pumping out the breaking news tweets until you tell it not to. And those few hundred (or so) readers who subscribe to the service are likely to be very happy you're providing it for them, and knowing Twitter, that means they're also likely to say nice things about you, on Twitter and elsewhere. Serving your customers and building good will is worth it anytime.
Here's Erica's list, rearranged by one of her readers to show just the top ten by number of followers:
@nytimes: 5,199 followers
@popcandy: 2,088 followers
@wsj: 1,230 followers
@nytimesscience: 940 followers
@nytimesarts: 934 followers
@nytimesnational: 905 followers
@nytimesbusiness: 896 followers
@nytimesmovies: 812 followers
@statesman: 760 followers
@nytimesworld: 756 followers
and if you still would like more, here's the Wikipedia entry on Twitter.
What do you think — should newspapers bother setting up Twitter feeds for their breaking news?