(note: this interview occurred on 4/17)
RaceTalk: As Twitter has become more mainstream (with so many celebrities joining it) there have been a lot of individuals breaking stories themselves before the larger news outlets have been able to, such as earthquakes and eye-witness stories. While being first to a story has always mattered in the media, is it important to beat the Twitter universe to a story?
Wade Roush: I don’t think it’s possible to beat the Twitter universe to a story when in an age of mobile technology, basically everyone with a wireless phone has become a walking newsroom, in a way. I mean, you’re absolutely right. Things like the splashdown of Contintental Airlines Flight 1549. So the first accounts of that crash in the Hudson River came from people who sent notices to Twitter from their cell phones, and the first picture was not from a TV camera. It was from somebody who took a picture and uploaded it to TwitPic.
So that was basically the world’s first notice this thing had happened. And when you’ve got everybody out there basically carrying around a news-gathering tool, like today’s camera phones, they in essence become this giant nerve network for the whole world. So how could a news organization possibly hope to out-compete this population of billions of people equipped with mobile news-gathering devices? They couldn’t.
I don’t think that any particular journalist’s reputation or any particular publication’s reputation rests on whether they are necessarily the first to break a story. And I think it’s getting harder and harder to be the first to “break” a story. I think that what’s emerging is a different kind of world where journalists, because they ideally have a background and experience writing about news events in particular spheres of interests, can immediately bring some context to the stories that are breaking and help people understand what’s going on and bring a lot of threads together from different places, and help people understand not just the immediate breaking event but the bigger picture and how this relates to other parts of the same story.
I think at the same time people who are out there with cell phones are starting to think of themselves as the front lines in journalism in a way. They don’t think of themselves as reporters necessarily, but they know there are these ways to contribute pictures they might snap, or contribute first-hand eyewitness reports back into the mainstream media. There are organizations like CNN that have been pretty aggressive about explaining how people can contact them with tips, pictures and eyewitness accounts. There’s this sort of interesting synergy, almost, an interesting sort of crowdsourcing of news that is going on. That’s one way that I think the mainstream media is trying to cope with this, and they’re doing an OK job of it, but I think they’re probably being outstripped by the pace of technology and how quickly camera phones have made their way out into society.
RaceTalk: It will be even more interesting once video is out there and people can just pull out a video camera and start recording.
WR: That’s happening already. Although the trick there is its not very easy yet to get the video off your phone. It’s a lot easier to e-mail a photograph to TwitPic or CNN than it would be to e-mail a video.
RaceTalk: But if you can do live video from your phone that changes things even more.
WR: Oh live video, absolutely. Oh wow, just think. It’s a world where everyone is sensing in a way. Everyone is carrying around a TV camera.
RaceTalk: What’s your general opinion on Twitter?
WR: I think Twitter as a technology is amazing and unexpected, but wonderful. It’s one of these technologies that comes along every three or four years and completely changes the way we think about the internet and what the internet is good for. Sort of the same way blogs did eight years ago. Twitter comes along and suddenly we can’t imagine how we were able to get along without this ability to send out 140-character updates 12 times a day to all of our friends, or to share news instantly, or to get debates going about immediate controversies. I find Twitter as a technology really energizing. I’m making more and more use of it myself to alert my followers about what I’m working on and what stories are coming up.
But then there is also Twitter the company. Twitter the company, I think, has a lot of growing up to do and has a giant task ahead of it. Your readers probably know that today was the day when Oprah made her first Tweet. Instantly Oprah had over like 100,000 followers. Whenever Oprah turns her audience onto something, it immediately becomes part of the mainstream. That’s what she did with the Kindle, basically. I think it was Oprah’s endorsement that helped Amazon put Kindle on the map for real. That’s probably going to happen with Twitter. You’re probably going to have millions of more people flooding into Twitter at a time when they were already struggling to keep up with the load in terms of infrastructure, the number of servers they have, and how they handle all of these messages.
They are an incredibly small company and I think they are kind of overwhelmed right now by the magnitude of the uptake and the adoption. You can tell from the state of their customer service operation that they are just not prepared for the new role that they are being asked to take on. I think there are going to be serious questions that will have to be asked down the road about whether one company, especially a company as small as Twitter, can really be trusted to operate a global communications network that has become as central and as crucial as Twitter. I’m not sure what the solution is.
RaceTalk: Do you think they’re facing some of the same growing pains as Facebook?
WR: No, I think a lot of Facebook’s growing pains have been self-inflicted pains around policy changes and design changes. It seems like every time Facebook changes their terms of service or the look and feel of their home page they piss off half of their user base and they spend the next two months trying to calm everyone down. Then they make another bone-headed change that half of their users hate and they have to start all over. As far as I know, Facebook never really had an infrastructure problem keeping up with the number of users they had. Or at least that was never the main story with Facebook.
RaceTalk: They did bring it along very slowly, first just for colleges and then later expanding it to high school and everyone else.
WR: Exactly. Whereas Twitter has consistently been sort of unable to provide a basic level of service that is acceptable. The fail whale is famous. I think its just going to get worse. They raised a lot of money recently. I think they will have to spend a lot of that just buying servers. I hope they spend some of it upgrading their customer service. I hope they spend some of it making the tools even easier to use.
But I think in a way, that Twitter is headed to being so important, such a fundamental part of the Internet, that people will start to see it the same way they see e-mail. You wouldn’t want any one company to control how email works. [Just think back to the] era in the early 1990s when individual companies like Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL actually did control how e-mail worked, and what your email address looked like, and whether you could even e-mail people on other networks. That was a problem, and we outgrew that era and the Internet standards that were in place for things like e-mail became true standards of interoperability. Now we think of e-mail as just part of the infrastructure of the Internet that no one in particular owns and everyone is partly responsible for maintaining. I wonder whether we’re going to have to go in that direction eventually with Twitter. You don’t want to take away a great idea from an entrepreneurial, young company that had that idea. But I think it is going to be interesting to see if Twitter can keep up with the level of demand that they’re tapping into. I think they stumbled across an idea that turned out to be incredibly infectious and useful, much more than they even themselves imagined, and now they’re in the position of having to keep up with this phenomenon they’ve created. I’m not sure they can.
RaceTalk: When your readers comment on your stories, what method do you find most valuable? When they do it through Twitter, e-mail, or in the comments section?
WR: By far the most useful thing to get a conversation going is for people to come to Xconomy and actually leave a written comment. That way I can reply and everyone can see our conversation. If they do it by e-mail, I can respond to them one-on-one, but the conversation doesn’t grow and spread. If they do it by Twitter and they reply in public to something I tweeted, then the conversation is more public but it is limited to little 140-character chunks. So one push I’m trying to make with my stories and within Xconomy in general is for all of us on the staff to be more active engaging with people who leave comments, more active inviting people to comment, and getting more conversations going around our stories. I would definitely encourage anyone who has an opinion about an Xconomy story to go and leave it there on the website. We will go and engage with you.