When the Internet was first being popularized in the 1990s, no one was really sure just how much it would come to rule our lives. When social networking took over in the early 2000’s, people were again unsure about the size of the explosion of online users that was to ensue. A February 2010 initiative by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. (called the Pew Internet & American Life Project) revealed that more than 65% of teens and 45% of adults use social networking sites. The amounts are even higher when the age group is broken down further – the study found that 72% of 18-29 year olds use social media .
Now, Twitter has revealed its number of active users to be somewhere around 100 million people – more than 50 million of which log in to the site every single day. Twitter says that almost 40% of these users log in just to see what other people are saying, however, the average number of tweets per day is still approximately 230 million . According to the American Journalism Review, rival social media giant Facebook boasts a whopping 400 million active users as of March 2010. Despite the current gap in users, the same article reveals that Twitter’s total number of “unique visitors” had increased by 300% since the previous year .
So what’s the big attraction? Perhaps one of the greatest perks of the Internet is its convenience. The previously mentioned survey from Pew Research Center also discovered that “75% of people who go online daily get their news and political information from the web.” Furthermore, the study found that 62% of teens age 12-17 also go online for information about news and politics.
One reason so many people may prefer to go online for political information is the personal value of the medium. When news is published on a social media site, or at least if a media outlet is accessible online, it is much easier for the public to get involved in a conversation. (In fact, The New York Times’ Twitter information simply says “Where the conversation begins.”) So, for example, when The Boston Globe tweets “An emotional story from @jlovinger: Making Peace With My Sister” and includes a link, it’s extremely easy for a user to read the article and then reply to the Globe’s tweet with their thoughts. If the person really connects to what a news outlet has posted – whether it be positive or negative – they can also retweet the post to their own profile.
News outlets use social media not only to release stories, but also to gauge and improve their public images. According to Sree Sreenivasan, Dean of Student Affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, “we’re looking to engage with audiences and to create a conversation around the news” . By having social media accounts, news outlets give themselves broad, inclusive access to millions of their consumers. And, in turn, they give every one of those millions of people access to them as well.
Former Jon Huntsman press secretary Tim Miller told CNN news “you need a clear message across all mediums and be able to quickly dispense with any threats to that message” . Consistency between what a news station airs on television (or radio) and publishes online is vitally important to building a solid company image. For example, one can easily identify the liberal or conservative undertones of Fox News’ Twitter versus something like “The Jon Stewart Show.” Sure, Jon Stewart specializes in satire, but the tone of his Twitter still matches the tone of his television show.
This brings me to my next point: media outlets must focus the content of their social media accounts as well. When scrolling through any given news production’s Twitter profile, it is very unlikely to see anything that isn’t, well, news. Some media outlets will retweet other news stories, but it’s more common for them to have their own version of the story.
However, I did notice one difference while studying dozens of newspaper and television station accounts: they tend to be more optimistic and tactful on Twitter. For example, one Tweet from Fox News about a story from March 6 mentioned a “killer nursing home fire.” When you click on the link, the actual title of the article is “1 dead after fire in meth lab inside nursing home.” In this case, Fox chose to focus on the fire in the tweet, but the death in the headline of the article.
I found another example of this sort of stylizing on The Washington Post’s account. The tweet read “Good news for travelers: Overhead bins on US flights are getting bigger.” This sounds like great news! However, when you click on the link, you see that the actual title of the article is much less encouraging. The headline reads “A look at US airlines’ efforts to expand the size of overhead bins.” Clearly, the word “efforts” is the key word in this sentence – it gives no decisive conclusion to the reader about the changes being made.
According to the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2010 analysis of over 41 million Twitter accounts, there are only 40 users with more than 1 million followers. As you might expect, all of these are either celebrities or mass media outlets . As calculated by Twitter analytics site Twitaholic, CNN Breaking News is the news outlet with the most followers – nearly 6.6 million people. The New York Times is not too far behind, with just over 4.6 million followers (followed closely by The Onion and MTV).
So what does this mean? As found by a 2010 study on trending topics, “Twitter users seem to be acting more as a filter and amplifier of traditional media in most cases,” said Bernardo Huberman, director of HP Labs’ Social Computer Research Group . Well, theoretically, the media can control what we know and when we know it. They can decide to spread news quickly – for example, the news of superstar Whitney Houston’s death spread at a rate of nearly 1,000 tweets a second . They can also choose to spread news sneakily – as in the case of Mitt Romney’s nonresponse to the latest Rush Limbaugh scandal. The presidential candidate was on an airplane to Ohio while little did he know that the Twitterverse was loudly buzzing with hundreds of thousands of replies and retweets to the original reporter’s post .
The 2012 election buzz around the candidates has been a trending topic for quite a while now. According to The Associated Press, Super Tuesday generated “more than 530,000 commends on social media over 24 hours, far outpacing any other primary or caucus night so far” . ABC News also claimed that more than 40,000, or 8% of Super Tuesday tweets mentioned candidate Rick Santorum – and that was only between 9 and 10pm on speech night. ABC says this is a 2012 election record for the “highest number of mentions for any GOP candidate” .
With so many spotlights and mouses pointed at the candidates, their words are being critiqued closer than previously possible, and by far more people. As Former Jon Huntsman press secretary Tim Miller points out, “with the expansion of news outlets cover the day-to-day minutiae of the campaign and Twitter creating a never-ending news cycle, this campaign has made rapid response and message discipline more important than ever” . The responsibility must continue to fall on the news outlets to deliver concise, timely, and accurate news to the public. Social media can be either a tool of great positive influence, or sheer destruction, depending on how well it is utilized. For this reason, many companies are adding skilled workers to manage their social media exclusively. Sreenivasan (Of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism) says that there are 51 main social media editors at media outlets today. She describes them as “a new breed of person in the newsroom who is able to bring immense value by harnessing all the content that the newsroom provides and help bring it eyeballs and traffic” .
Even though there is often someone carefully watching over a media outlet’s social media accounts, users must still be weary at times. One example I stumbled across reminded me of one of the disadvantages of Twitter – the character limit. For news stations, it must be difficult to trim stories, and even headlines, down to just 140 characters (including the link to the full story). On March 6, Good Morning America tweeted “Paula Deen fights sexual harassment suit.” With her recent drama regarding lying about having diabetes for several years, I was drawn in by this post. However, when I clicked the link to the full article, the headline read “Paula Deen’s lawyer fights sexual harassment lawsuit.” From this, I was still fairly certain that Deen was the one being charged for sexual harassment. However, as I read on, I found out that it was another man who worked in her studio that was being charged for harassment, and it wasn’t even against sweet, old Paula Deen. Hmm, I guess GMA might need to hire someone to write less misleading tweets. Or, perhaps, that was exactly what they wanted to happen – after all, it got me to their site.
[Lilly is a freshmen Communications major and contributing writer to our Department blog. – Sandy]
 Pew Internet & American Life Project, an initiative of the Pew Research Center, February 2010, Washington D.C.
 Time Magazine, September 2011, “Twitter reveals active user number, how many actually say something” by Graeme McMillan.
 American Journalism Review, March 2010, “Harnessing Social Media” by Stephanie Gleason.
 CNN March 3 “On-message with social media? Good luck with that” by Jim Acosta.
 Association for Computing Machinery Digital Library, “What is Twitter: a social network or a news media?” © 2010. Analysis of over 41 million Twitter accounts.
 CNN News, February 2011, “Study: News Outlets drive Twitter trends” by Austin Carr of Fast Company.
 Mashable Entertainment, February 2012, “Twitter Breaks News of Whitney Houston’s Death 27 Minutes Before Press” by Samantha Murphy.
 ABC News, March 8, “Rick Santorum Breaks Twitter Record for Most Talked About Candidate on Super Tuesday” by Amy Bingham.
 Washington Post site, March 2012, “Analysis shows Super Tuesday a hot topic on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media” by the Associated Press.