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WEB SCOUT

On Twitter, mindcasting is the new lifecasting

March 12, 2009|David Sarno | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Even a few years ago the word "blog" inspired that peculiar mix of derision and dismissal that seems to haunt new media innovations long after they're proven. A blogger was a lonely, pajama-clad person in a dark room, typing out banal musings he mistook for interesting ones, to be read by a handful of friends or strangers if they were read at all.

That blogs have become a fixture of media and culture might, you'd think, give critics pause before indulging in another round of new media ridicule. But it ain't so.

Twitter, the micro-messaging service where users broadcast short thoughts to one another, has been widely labeled the newest form of digital narcissism. And if it's not self-obsession tweeters are accused of, it's self-promotion, solipsism or flat out frivolousness.

But naysayers will soon eat their tweets. There's already a vibrant community of Twitter users who are using the system to share and filter the hyper-glut of online information with ingenious efficiency. Forget what you had for breakfast or how much you hate Mondays. That's just lifecasting.

Mindcasting is where it's at.

The distinction is courtesy of Jay Rosen, a journalism professor and new media analyst at New York University. For him, Twitter is a new way to conduct a real-time, multi-way dialogue with thousands of his colleagues and fellow netizens.

"Mindcasting came about when I was trying to achieve a very high signal-to-noise ratio," he explained. This meant using his Twitter account to send out tweets pointing to the best media news and analysis he could find, 15 or 20 times a day. "I could work on the concept of a Twitter feed as an editorial product of my own."

As Rosen noted, that product is itself a distillation of the huge stream of input he gets from the nearly 550 journalists, analysts and news outlets he follows on Twitter. "I've hand-built my own tipster network," he said. "It's editing the Web for me in real time."

Now zoom out and think of Rosen, his hundreds of sources and his 10,000 followers, each as a kind of individual information amplifier, consuming and passing along the most interesting stuff that comes their way. So when the Gazette newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, announced it was re-engineering itself, with the newspaper as just one container for its news, Rosen saw the news tweeted by Scott Karp, a Web journalism entrepreneur he follows -- and shared the story with his own audience.

It's people-powered media in action. And yet a Time magazine columnist wondered this week, "Could a service that seemed to be designed specifically to provide its users with incessant interruptions, empty of almost any meaning or importance, really succeed?"

Nah, seriously? If Twitter was nothing but a way for the masses to meaninglessly interrupt each other, it wouldn't have attracted the deafening media buzz in the first place, let alone millions of users, or a hyper-caffeinated developer community that cranks out new tools every day that allow users to search, sift and harness the geyser of content that Twitter has become.

The not quite 3-year-old San Francisco-based company says its user base has grown by 900% in the last year alone. Last month the company accepted an additional $35 million in venture capital too, a hint that investors see potential where skeptics don't.

You only need to spend a few days playing with Twitter to see that, rather than being the latest vapid fad, the simple service is powering a new economy of info-sharing and connectivity. Ask people who have made a career out of studying digital media and idea exchange, and you'll get more superlatives than scoffs.

"I've been following the blogosphere for a long time," said Henry Jenkins, the head of MIT's Comparative Media Studies center. As a human-to-human communications medium, he said, "I've never seen the scale and volume of the flow of information that Twitter is facilitating."

Twitter takes the concept of social networking and blows the doors off it. Because it's a public messaging system -- more like radio than e-mail -- you don't need to be real-life "friends" with a person to tune in to his feed, you just need to be interested. That means you have the unique flexibility to program your own information stream. And once you do, you quickly find you're not swimming alone.

"It makes visible the structure of implied communities," said Tim O'Reilly, the CEO of technology publisher O'Reilly Media and one of Twitter's most-followed mindcasters with more than 60,000 subscribers. "The people who are involved in the same areas and the same interests tend to follow each other."

Media organizations should take note of Twitter's power to quickly reach their target consumers, said O'Reilly, whose company has published more than 1,200 books since it was founded. "It's the purest form of what we as publishers do: We track a community and then we pay attention to some things more than others, and we spread the word about them."

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