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The Twitter Revolution

May 12, 2011

In 1605, Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien was the first newspaper ever published and since then journalism and news has seen many radical advancements, in the methods of how it is disseminated to the public, the speed in which it is done, and the inherent pitfalls that come with these advancements.

The spread of the printing press through Europe during the 17th century is “seen as the reason for the rapid spread of the Newspaper” (Weber, 2006)   During the 19th century, the First Industrial Revolution produced advances in printing technology that enabled newspapers to become an even more widely circulated means of communication. For example, In 1814 The London Times acquired a printing press “capable of making 1,100 impressions per minute which was soon adapted to be able to print on both sides of the paper.”  (Meggs, 1998)  Another development of the First Industrial Revolution was the the invention of the Steam engine, which allowed Newspapers to be carried great distances, increasing the range, speed and scope of Newspapers.

The Second Industrial Revolution saw the invention of the Radio, with the first radio news program being broadcast on August 31, 1920 in Detroit, Michigan.  This development again saw an increase in the speed of news dissemination, as information could be delivered to the radio station over phone networks and broadcast within hours or even minutes.

Then there was the first television news broadcast on May 10th, 1928 when Kolin Hager read news and weather reports in front of a microphone at WGY in Schenectady, New York.  This was soon followed by live pictures beamed into peoples living rooms, and small amounts of news were disseminated instantly.

In the last few years however, there has been a revolution in the news stream that has become the most radical of all.  Twitter emerged in 2008 and through its ease of use, quickly became a “breakthrough social media tool for journalists.  It became a pipeline for breaking news for both professional reporters and citizen journalists, with the massacre in Mumbai, the Hudson River plane crash and Obama’s inauguration highlighting its effectiveness as a source of live, user-generated online content.”  (  In the present day, Twitter has essentially provided an enormous forum for journalists to link with their peers and break news instantaneously.  The sheer volume of information posted through Twitter is incredible.  Forbes Technology writer Oliver Chiangrecently commented that “Twitter has reached nearly 200 million registered accounts who post 110 million tweets per day.”   (  In addition, according to ABC Australia Managing Director Mark Scott, of those 110 million tweets per day “25 per cent of all Tweets contain links.”  (  Now those links could be sharing anything; letting another user know there is a live update of Question Time in the Australian Parliament,  an article concerning the effects of globalisation on the Ifugao peoples of the Northern Phillipines, philosophical debates over the morality of torture or… that there is a talking dog on youtube.  But the fact is that an enormous amount of users are sharing an even larger amount of information with each other, and it is conducted in real time.

My own forays into Twitter only began a matter of months ago as a result of necessity.  It was a requirement of my studies that I join Twitter and establish an online presence.  You see , until very recently, I was of the thought that Twitter was for people who wanted to tweet that their “incredible ANZAC cookie recipe worked“, or that their “walk around the lake was awzomeeeee“, or that they “had to take their cat to the vet because of a giant furball.”  Perhaps I can excuse my naivety on Twitter, as these examples of social media taken from some Facebook status updates portray a valid reason to suspect Twitter of being much the same.  However, while there are still the inane updates such as the the ones above, it is easy to streamline your Twitter feed into showing you the sorts of Tweets you want to be reading.  For example, most, if not all, the users I am following on Twitter are journalists of some sort or another.  I can group these users into “lists”, that separate the feeds I am getting from them into easily digestible groupings of different categories.  For example, I have a list with all the sports journos I am following, a list with all the political journos I am following, and so on.  This is a great feature as I can move between these lists to get my fill of whatever field I feel like digesting.   Mark Scott sums it up pretty well:  “It means if you want to read something from The New York Times or The Independent or Le Monde, you can go straight to the source. You are no longer dependent on the handful of Australia’s newspaper executives who decided what would be available to you in your Australian newspaper, the stories they wanted to publish in their own papers. You just go there directly – and find things that interest you, save, share, Tweet and link to them.”  (

I have alluded to the fact that a lot of this sharing of information is done in real time and there could be no better example of this than during the alleged killing of Osama Bin Laden, a little over a week ago.

Sohaib Athar, who describes himself as a 33-year-old programmer and consultant “taking a break from the rat race by hiding in the mountains with his laptops,” happened to be staying up late at the time last week when he began tweeting about some odd sounds he was hearing.

“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” 5:58 AM May 2nd

“Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter :-/” 6:05 AM May 2nd

“The abbottabad helicopter/UFO was shot down near the Bilal Town area, and there’s report of a flash. People saying it could be a drone.”  7:10 AM May 2nd

Without knowing it, Athar had begun tweeting about the attack on the compound.  This was instantaneous reporting of one of the biggest news items in the last decade, and it was largely due to the simplicity and ease of use of Twitter.  As Mitch Joel of the Montreal Gazette describes “If Sohaib Athar had to open his word processing software, write up a paragraph about helicopters buzzing overhead, then upload that copy to his blog, he probably would not have bothered. If he had to find a video camera, shoot the event, give some commentary, transfer it to his computer and upload it to You-Tube, he probably would not have bothered.”  (

Another example of the instantaneous sharing of information is the “breaking” of the Bin Laden news.

The time was roughly 1pm when a tweet popped up in my feed.  “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”  This was posted by Keith Urbahn, who is the Chief of Staff for Donald Rumsfeld.  Now the really interesting thing is I did not receive the tweet directly from Urbahn himself, rather it was retweeted to me by a journalist who had been following Urbahn.  It was tweeted to me 2 minutes after the original statement from Urbahn.  No other network, print or broadcast had broken this story yet.

The really interesting thing is that Urbahn is now being credited for breaking the story when in fact he was not the first to speculate on the reasons for an emergency presidential television appearance by Barrack Obama.  Between the first speculative tweet and President Obama’s address to the nation, about 15 million tweets had been exchanged between users.  A startup called SocialFlow analysed the twitter conversations about Bin Laden and says that what really broke the news about Osama Bin Laden was that “By publicly engaging with each other on Twitter, users could jointly build out and break hypotheses, piecing together all known facts, until what’s believed to be a believable “truth” emerges. Many people were trying to figure out the puzzle together.”  (

(a visualization of the network graph showing the spread of Keith Urbahn’s single  speculative tweet across users on Twitter)

However, this also highlights one of the greatest pitfalls of twitter.  After the post by Urbahn, many US networks began reporting the alleged death of Bin Laden.  Although it was to be correct, in a medium where rumour can be construed as fact if enough people say it, and so many are keen to have the breaking news without bothering to verify, this could have dire consequences for the journalism industry.

Weber, Johannes (2006), “Strassburg, 1605: The Origins of the Newspaper in Europe”, German History 24 (3): 387–412 (387)

Philip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design (1998) pp 130–133


From → Online News

  1. Nice work, Ben. Excellent historically contextualised assessment of the impact of Twitter.

  2. I’m new to twitter too and have been struggling to bring my colleagues along for the ride – thanks for summarising the benefits & potential pitfalls so well.

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