Jay Rosen teaches journalism at NYU and is a leading media critic. He blogs at Press Think and produces a weekly podcast on news and technology called Rebooting The News. He has almost 50,000 followers on Twitter. We recently spoke via email about Jay’s personal twitter strategy and the platform’s impact on the media.
You waited to join Twitter. Why?
I became aware of Twitter in mid-2007 when I started to see it pop up more and more in my referral logs for PressThink. I knew it was driving people to my posts, but didn’t really understand what it was. Then my friend Jeff Jarvis started telling me that I had to be on Twitter, advice I took seriously. So I began to study it. But I wasn’t going to open an account until I had an idea for an approach that cohered with the way I try to do things online. That took until May, 2008. I didn’t have a name for it then. Later I began calling it mindcasting, as distinct from lifecasting.
It was the same with blogging. An undergraduate at NYU told me about blogging in the fall of 2002. I took a year to study it and figure out my approach. PressThink was launched in September, 2003. My blog is a publication of the Journalism Institute at NYU. On Twitter, I took the name @jayrosen_nyu. So my blog and my feed have to be university quality. That’s why I’m so deliberate.
When you did join Twitter, what was your goal?
To learn about it by participating in it. To get good at it. To test whether Twitter could be used to conduct press criticism. To somehow engage in journalism education over Twitter. To further develop a constituency for my work. And to do something… different. After a few months I developed another goal: to fine tune the mix of people I follow so I could monitor more of my “beat”–press criticism, future of journalism, new media–from the inflow.
In August, you told Atlantic.com that you use Twitter in place of an RSS feeder and news alerts. Why?
I never liked using an RSS reader. For me Twitter is a more organic way to receive notifications that something new has been published, in the mix with ideas, observations, news reports and other detritus from the 650 people I follow.
You spend a lot of time crafting your tweets. What are you thinking as you plan a tweet?
You really want to know? Well, it’s many things. First: this is public. It may get quoted. It goes out under my by-line. It’s my writing, my craft. Then, I’m thinking about what I’m about to link to, which I’ve usually read twice, and why I believe it’s worth sharing. Because that is the most important thing for the user to “get.” Why did Rosen think this was worth sharing? If they have no idea, I flunked my own test.
After that it’s genre, economy, beauty and continuity. To take them individually…
By genre I mean I have several forms I use over and over.
* There’s the flat descriptor. It’s a headline that tells you what the thing is, usually with a quote.
The Guardian’s Nick Davies says he has quit all contact with Assange http://jr.ly/6gtm “The first time I have cut off a source in 34 years.”
* There’s description, plus. It includes my quick take. If the headline and link don’t get you, the opinion might:
The Columbus Dispatch pulls “the homeless man with the golden voice” video from YouTube http://jr.ly/6iif The Columbus Dispatch is an idiot.
* There’s the blind link, which doesn’t describe what’s behind the url. You have to click to make any of sense of it at all. Risky because it works by leaving key information out:
I love good punctuation, and as punctuation goes this was… beautiful http://jr.ly/6gub
* One of the hardest genres is the double link: two thoughts, two urls:
* Then there’s the linkless observation, which has to stand on its own. (This one had 100+ re-tweets.)
Name me a story that found more common ground among the left, the right and libertarians. You can’t. The TSA has talent.
There’s the “criticism in a box” tweet, where the post tries to deliver a complete thought. In this one, I’m suggesting that one reason NPR continually misstated the number of State Department cables released by Wikileaks is that professional journalists want Wikileaks to be something recognizably different from what they are– an indiscriminate dumper. You can fix the error, but it’s more important to examine the attitude, a wish for a clearer difference.
Yes, NPR. You’ve repeatedly made this error http://jr.ly/6gfp But the question is WHY. Try looking for the wish that was father to the goof.
So when composing I’m thinking about the genre and what its requirements are. I’m also thinking about “shared awareness,” meaning stuff that’s going on in the world that everyone following me probably knows about because it’s happening now. It’s very important to evoke that kind of tacit knowledge so I’m constantly asking myself where it is… now.
Being as economical as I can in my word selection is also a constant, because as everyone knows you only have 140 characters, 122 with the link.
The most important thing to me is probably beauty, or at least avoiding ugly. I hate abbreviations. I hate acronyms. I use correct punctuation. I look for flow, music or a striking image that will stick in the mind.
Jack Dorsey listened to the radio calls from emergency vehicles when he was a kid. The idea for Twitter was born there. http://is.gd/ka8YJ
Continuity: some tweets are solo acts. No continuity there. Others are one in a cluster of 4 to 10 posts that lasts 24 to 48 hours, usually around a news event. And others take their place within a longer arc: a running series of observations around key themes in my criticism like the View from Nowhere. In the second and third categories I am thinking of how the post fits into its family of posts.
Finally, I am thinking about this: if an attentive user reads the post, clicks the link, attends to that link, then looks back at the Tweet I wrote, will it work in a slightly different way the second time? If so, I nailed it.
You don’t tweet about your personal life and you rarely stray from the subject of the media. Why?
Because the best chance I have to add value for the people I wish to reach is to be very focused on the two or three things I know really well. I’m not university quality in economics or movies or the sociology of sport, so I don’t talk about those things. The fun part for me is to bring users inside my beat and the way I think. That’s why I say that my goal is a Twitter feed that’s 100 percent personal and zero percent private. Over time you get to know me, personally, including some of my obsessions and frustrations. But it’s an intellectual intimacy. It’s public. It’s about the work I do, not the person I am when “off duty.”
How do you manage the art of the @reply?
Twitter is a lot like radio. It’s more like radio than any other media form. I don’t use the radio to talk to a single person. That makes no sense to me. So I don’t give @replies to everyone who talks to me. I read and think about every post sent my way, and many of them affect me deeply. But I reply using the @ feature rarely. When I do, I address my reply to that person, but I write it for all the people who follow both of us. Same when I comment in a blog thread. The illusion is you are talking to one person, or the others in the thread. The real audience is the lurkers. So my @ replies are items written to be overheard.
Many Twitter skeptics still exist. What do you say to them?
“You’d probably hate Twitter. My advice is to stay away.”
You’re a media scholar. Let’s talk big picture. How is Twitter impacting the way news is gathered and shared?
Because of Twitter, the news system is tending toward a state where every user is a node in the news gathering network. And a distributor. That’s a very different system.
What about advertising? If it’s free for businesses to tweet and use other social networks, what will happen to the traditional advertising platforms?
Two observations: 1.) Advertising is being unbuilt by forces far larger than Twitter. 2.) Pure message senders tend to do poorly on Twitter.
If you could have one person follow you on Twitter, who would it be?