The Digital Reader: Twitter

Monday, October 18, 2010

A few years ago my wife's grandpa, appalled when he found out we didn't take a daily newspaper, offered to buy us a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. We couldn't very well turn him down, and soon we were gazing at stippled portraits of corporate honchos over Cheerios in the morning. At first it was nice to have a physical paper to spread out on the table and not care if one of the kids spilled juice on it, but after a few months the papers started to stack up in the recycling pile, rarely read past the front page. When the gift subscription ended, we didn't renew, and yet we still managed to stay on top of the news.

What he didn't understand was that both of us read all our news online (or rather, he didn't think this was sufficient). Just like he couldn't imagine starting the day without a newsprint copy of Wall Street Journal or Chicago Tribune, we couldn't imagine starting our day without opening up a laptop, or more likely now, scanning our iPhones. What's more, it's a habit that's woven into the day, collected in little bits during downtime at work, waiting for appointments, and in furtive glances at our phones while the kids ransack the house. I read more now than I ever did when I relied soley on paper, and I'm positive that I'm more informed about the world.

I start my daily reading routine by catching up on Twitter. While some people think of it primarily as a social tool, I use it as a way of taking the temperature of the internet. I follow a lot of friends on Twitter too, but I also tend to follow journalists and writers who pass along interesting links and talk about the issues of the day. Combined with listening to NPR while I get ready and whatever non-Dora TV I might get to watch before I leave the house, I start the day with a pretty solid idea of what's happening in the world.

You'll often hear people describe Twitter as a "digital watercooler," where your friends hand around and talk about the latest news. I use it that way too, but it's also how I get my hard news, the "just the facts, ma'am" stories to serve as a basis for further opinion. I follow feeds from The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, etc, along with individuals whose voices I value. Often the headline is enough, but I can also click through to read the articles or save the link for later. I've long since given up on going to news websites directly, because they're either cluttered and not much fun to read, or updated at a relatively glacial pace. On Twitter, everything is up to the minute because reporters are often tweeting about the news as it happens.

I like to check Twitter at least once an hour during the day, but sometimes I can't or just don't feel like it. The best "feature" of Twitter though (air quotes because I'm not sure it was really intended this way) is that you can dip your toes into the stream whenever you have the time, catch up, and leave. If you can't get to it for a while, it's okay. You won't miss anything, and no pile of unread items stacks up in an inbox. If a news story is important enough, you'll either hear about it through other means or catch the updated versions of the story later.

In the past I've been tempted to push everything through Twitter so I only have one place to check for all my info, but that doesn't really work either. It starts to feel a little too much like work, and there are some things I don't want to miss. How I deal with that is the subject of next week's post: RSS feeds.

This is the second post in the Digital Reader Series, about reading in the information age.