By Sree Sreenivasan
DNAinfo Contributing Editor
On the morning of April 13, I got a couple of breaking news e-mail alerts about Michelle Obama landing in Haiti for an unannounced visit. I also watched a cable news anchor talk breathlessly about the First Lady's "surprise" visit.
But I wasn't surprised, thanks to a tweet (seen above) by @RAMhaiti, the handle of Haitian-American musician and hotel manager Richard Auguste Morse. He tweeted the night before about rumors of Mrs. Obama's arrival. Morse, based in Port-au-Prince, is someone I have followed on Twitter because of his extensive, useful, informative messages about the earthquake's aftermath.
This reaffirmed for me the importance of journalists using social media (some prefer "real-time Web") to listen, not just to broadcast their latest whereabouts or stories.
The idea that Twitter is only a marketing channel is just one of the misconceptions about the service that have taken hold since it became widely used a couple of years ago.
Twitter's fourth birthday, the start of Twitter ads and last week's developer conference (New York Times, Mashable coverage) have given me an excuse to highlight some of the other misconceptions and provide some context.
• Twitter is not growing: Stats from the conference show the scope and speed of Twitter's growth. It has more than 105 million users, with 300,000 new users joining every day. There are now 55 million tweets a day (that number was 5,000 a day in 2007; 300,000 in 2008; 2.5 million in 2009).
• Twitter.com is where the action is: It seems ridiculous for me to say that, given the fact that 180 million people log on to the site each month. But it's important to understand that the Twitter homepage is just a small part of the ecosystem it has built. Turns out 75 percent of its traffic comes from the third-party applications that attempt to bring order to the Twitter chaos. There are more 100,000 apps/tools/services (I have highlighted some of the good ones here) to do that. This means companies and news organizations that have been tracking their traffic have been undercounting the amount of traffic that Twitter sends them, since much of it was coming from apps, rather Twitter.com.
• Twitter's follower counts are insightful numbers: One of the problems with having the number of followers listed prominently on Twitter profiles is that we give those numbers too much prominence, as if having more followers means that particular Twitter feed is inherently more valuable or what they say more meaningful. If that were the case, then Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber would be the among the few people worth listening to. The value of a Twitter feed is really in what that person or institution has to say. @RAMhaiti didn't have many followers on Twitter before the earthquake. But today he has more than 14,000.
• Twitter's 140 characters are too few: Newspapers used to tell you all the information you needed in far less than 140 characters. If you want more information, you can read the text of the story, but for the most part, you got a good sense from the headline and then moved on. Good tweets are like headlines, with a link attached for those who want more. My own personal rules include trying to attach a link or photo or video to every tweet and I also try to tweet in 120 characters, so that the posts can be easily retweeted.
• Twitter is filled with folks telling you what they're eating and what they are doing: Actually, this is true - way too much sharing is going on (except for @RuthReichl - it might be worth knowing what food writers and chefs eat). If people you are following bore you, then don't follow them.
For all of Twitter usefulness, it's not intuitive, and that's why there's so much noise on it. As the New York Times quoted Evan Williams, Twitter CEO, “It’s amazing it’s grown so fast given how hard it is to use.”
At DNAinfo.com, the reporter-producers have been on Twitter long before the site launched, listening to people in Manhattan's neighborhoods and interacting with them extensively. They've used it to break stories, get tips and connect with their readers.
And like everyone else on Twitter, they'll have to keep working on their social-media skills to listen and to get more attention to their work.
What's working with Twitter and what isn't? Let me know in the comments or via Twitter: @sreenet
Every Monday, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan shares his observations about the changing media landscape.