A Final Ted Kennedy Innovation: A New Way To Use Twitter

One way to distinguish a transitory technology from an essential technology, like Twitter, is through the efficiency with which it's able to provide essential information. By that metric, Twitter surpasses even Facebook.

Today, with Ted Kennedy in repose, his family bears responsibility for a technological advance, one that, if replicated by others, will save time, money and mental bandwidth. It seems small potatoes: instead of using e-mail to distribute information about funeral arrangements, the family has set up a Twitter account, @kennedynews. The handle will be used to provide updates about timing, logistics, even VIP arrivals to various events. This will undoubtedly prove more efficient than press releases, which must be clicked on and skimmed until the particular piece of information is communicated. The 140-character limit will force the info to be communicated quickly, unadorned with extraneous words.

At some point soon, as Twitter becomes more ubiquitous, a major company, or an advocacy group, or a politician, will take the step of eschewing formal e-mail press releases altogether. In politics, press releases are an artifact of an earlier age. They're the direct descendant of blast faxes. Because of the conventions associated with public relations writing, it often takes a good bit of throat-clearing before an e-mailed press missive makes the point. If information requires more than 140 characters to communicate, it's easy to link to an external site (which has the benefit of driving people to the site). But forcing the headline into 140 characters places a premium on adding value and getting to the point. I suppose it might also encourage sensationalism; we are all, in some ways, writing the wood of the New York Post.
As a means of transmitting information, Twitter has an edge over Facebook, for a few reasons. As a social networking site, Facebook is responsible for a lot of junk that has little bearing for one's professional life, at work. Invitations to parties. Invitations to events. Invitations to play cards and scrabbles. People who update their status through Facebook tend to relate information about their lives, like the kimchi they ate for dinner. Twitter is less of a social networking technology and more of a news communication platform. It _can_ be used for certain essential social interchange functions, like updating your location and informing a small list of friends where to meet you. But Twitter allows you to maintain several accounts at once.

Journalists use Facebook to gather information, and to develop sources, and to keep watch on their competition. No more haggling with RSS feeds, per se, or having to navigate to a separate site with your favorite bookmarked streams. People who have something to say will find it cost effective to maintain a Twitter account -- much more so than e-mail listservs. It took about 20 minutes after I first Tweeted word of the @kennedynews account for more than 240 people to sign up to receive information. Spreading the word via e-mail would have taken the Kennedy family much longer.

There are limitations, to be sure. Private two-way communication over Twitter isn't possible unless the other party "follows" you too, so journalists who want specific information still need to know a telephone number or an e-mail of a Kennedy spokesperson. (Of course, the Kennedy family could simply (and easily, automatically) "follow" everyone who "follows" them.)  What if someone spoofs the Kennedy identity? Twitter is working on ways to make it clearer which known brands or entities are "official," and which aren't. What about spam? There is Twitter spam, and it will grow more savvy, but Twitter doesn't seem especially vulnerable to spammers. What about bandwidth? It's a save-save proposition. Twitter hosts the tweets. The Kennedy family's purchased data server hosts the extra information that might be needed for certain communications. Individuals bear no data cost, aside from the incremental Tweet. If they want to save it for future reference, like an e-mail, they can. (Again -- a small privacy issue here -- unless you "lock" your accounts, you can't keep your "Favorites" private.) What about restricted lists? If the Kennedy family only wanted journalists to get the information, they could lock their accounts and grant access on a tweep-by-tweep basis.

Many 2010 campaigns are using Twitter instrumentally and not yet ready to take the risk of making the technology central to their communication efforts. That's understandable -- Twitter is, in many ways, not mature or widely used enough. But soon, it will be. And here's betting that smart, cost-cutting, information-savvy campaigns will start to make the switch.