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Commentary: On the Media

Twitter's charms sort of grow on you

The Internet-based status-update service is another window into a world that he finds he likes, despite himself.

February 18, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Twitter always reminded me of my dog, squirming around, tail wagging -- demanding a little more attention than I felt I could give. But when I devoted a few minutes of attention, it was usually worthwhile.

The Internet-based status-update service has been all the rage of late, with master Twitterers receiving awards, celebrity journalists pledging their allegiance and a research paper showing just who uses the micro-blogging system that delivers news morsels, 140 characters at a time.

Twitter -- -- will never be the New Yorker or even the Associated Press, but it's another window into a world that I find I'm liking, despite myself.

A fellow reporter suggested sometime after Twitter was born 2 1/2 years ago that Times staffers should all sign up -- the better to feed info to our readers if the paper's website temporarily crashed in, say, an earthquake.

We haven't had to test that emergency backstop yet, so I mainly used my account to post links to my columns @latrainey.

In terms of collecting information, I didn't feel much need, what with the deluge already available on my computer via old-school news sites, blogs, e-mail and RSS feeds. Still, I couldn't help notice that the Twitter brand kept cropping up, particularly in emergencies.

Last May, victims of the giant earthquake in China used Twitter and other status-update systems to deliver some of the earliest news reports. The same occurred when wildfires roared across Southern California. And one of the first photos of US Airways Flight 1549, downed in the Hudson River last month, were posted on Twitter by a ferryboat passenger.

So how does Twitter work?

Once you sign up on the home page, which is simple, you can begin to file micro reports, known as tweets. You can also follow as many (or few) of the site's estimated 6 million registered users as you like, their postings scrolling out, chronologically, in one long string.

I'm mostly yolked to my laptop, but others read or post updates from their cellphones or BlackBerrys. Twitter's search function helps you find those who might write about topics of interest -- say Westminster dog show results or Simon's latest beat down on "American Idol."

The site's entry prompt -- "What are you doing?" -- implies it's merely a repository for the banal, narcissistic drivel that chokes social networking sites. But many Twitter users have pushed well past daily minutiae (i.e. "I love my new Crocs"), as demonstrated by last week's first Shorty Awards.

Conceived by Sawhorse Media, a Brooklyn-based start-up company, the awards allowed Twitter users to vote for their favorites in 26 categories.

In the news category, users liked BreakingNewsOn, a 20-year-old Dutch man's creation, which delivers a surprisingly thorough list of breaking news alerts from around the world.

Michael van Poppel's BNO, as it's known, aggregates information from other news outlets and relies on its own staff, including volunteers, to gather and confirm news flashes. Van Poppel declined, by e-mail, to talk much about himself but said that one day the site hoped to generate revenue, perhaps from advertising or mainstream media subscribers.

Names from big media -- including "Meet the Press" host David Gregory, CNN's Rick Sanchez and Slate political writer John Dickerson -- have made a second home on Twitter with their posts.

Another new/old media face, Ana Marie Cox, took second in the Shorty Awards voting for top political journalists. The 36-year-old journalist gained acclaim as Washington-based blogger Wonkette, then moved to Time magazine for much of the presidential race.

Back to her netroots, Cox posts with almost pathological regularity on Twitter as @anamariecox or, during live events, as @amclive.

By turns snarky, savvy and coquettish, she covered President Obama's White House briefing last week like the bad girl in the back of the class. Cox poked fun at the fur vest worn by venerable correspondent Helen Thomas, grasped at unintended sexual entendre, caught Obama dissing his vice president ("Joe's been under the bus so many times," Cox wrote, "he's actually licensed to repair it at this point") and dinged the president for responding to questions with non-responses.

The fate of the nation may not have been advanced, but Cox's 45 tweets provided a nice insurgent voice inside what can be an overly somber Washington set piece.

That doesn't mean Twitter can't provide access to weightier information, said Susannah Fox, who co-wrote the Pew Research Center's recent report on the huge growth of status-update services.

Fox, for example, finds many tips about conferences and journal articles on another research topic -- the effect of technology on healthcare -- from one of her favorite Twitterers.

That's the key here. As in many corners of the Web, you need to find people who share your interests and don't waste (too much of) your time.

Others clearly are finding something worth reading. The site, with less than 1 million unique monthly visitors in January 2008, had about 6 million as of last month, according to the tracking service compete.com.

So I guess Twitter, along with my dog, will remain part of my daily routine. The only daunting downside -- as so often happens with new media: You only get back as much as you put in.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Andrew Nystrom contributed to this column.

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