“Hey, are you on Twitter?”
“Yeah, I’ll be tweeting during the debate tonight, follow me!”
This was talk heard amongst UMass journalism students all day Thursday and Tuesday as they prepared for the vice presidential and presidential debates over the past week. And no, Twitter isn’t a hot new drinking or video game. It’s a site that lets users post short text messages (called “tweets”) from their computer or cell phone to a public online feed.
UMass journalism professors Steve Fox, Scott Brodeur and B.J. Roche had their classes plug in to Twitter during the debates. The classes — Politics, Journalism and the Web, Multimedia Journalism, and Writing for the Web — made tweets to a group feed throughout the debate.
Students posted remarks and questions to the #umassvp and #umassprez2 topics and received instant feedback from classmates and professors, without having to leave their dorm. For instance, alexa_m tweeted, “Today my boss said she heard that the questions would be softballs tonight or Palin wouldn’t come. Any truth to that?” and her professor Steve Fox immediately responded, “Good question by Alexa — did Ifill do a good job as moderator or was this softball practice?”
As a relatively new form of social media, Twitter has drawn the attention of professional journalists around the country trying to keep up with today’s shifting media landscape. The impetus behind UMass Journalism’s great Twitter debate experiment was to explore the technology’s potential as a tool for transmitting and consuming news.
“I think it’s a good pool of people’s personal views and small funny comments, but to use it as a resource for reporting is pretty difficult,” said Eric Doody, senior journalism major.
Alexa Marcigliano, senior journalism and environmental science major, also felt that the signal-to-noise ratio on Twitter made it a poor medium for news in the traditional sense. “If there was actual reporting going on, it was hard to sift through with all the opinions in the feed,” she said.
“I’m pretty good at multi-tasking, but I had four windows open — it was way too much to focus on anything, including the debate,” said Ben Williams, senior journalism and psychology major. His observation echos the concerns of many that applications like Twitter only exacerbate our generation’s technology-induced ADD.
UMass made a splash on Twitter during Tuesday night’s presidential debate, with #umassprez2 rising to become a hot election topic on the site’s front page. An unexpected outcome of the school’s 15 minutes of fame: representatives from both McCain and Obama’s campaigns spammed the group with political spin.
Heavy traffic to the site on debate night also exposed Twitter’s imperfections. Extensive lag, dropped connections, and messages never making it to the group feed were common problems, making true real-time communication between users impossible.
Right now, the question in the minds of many is whether Twitter is just a fad, or the herald of a sea-change in the way people get their news and connect to one another.
Jon Bishop, a long-time Twitter user and former UMass student, feels that social media sites like Twitter are the beginning of a collective voice of citizen journalists.
“Social media has already played a huge role in these elections, both on how the politicians are reaching their audiences and how the community shares and spread information,” said Bishop. “I think social media is already starting to go mainstream and will continue to do so until it is an unconscious means of communicating and sharing.”
Professor Steve Fox said about the UMass group, “This was an experiment in an emerging new technology and it had the hidden benefit of engaging students in the political process.”
Will Twitter lead the charge in an online media revolution? With technical and content-managing issues waiting to be improved upon, the jury’s still out on that.
“It needs a way to filter everything. It’s just too stream-of-consciousness right now,” said Williams. “Twitter needs some work before it’s something usable to the general public.”
Ashleigh Bennett contributed to this report.