MediaNext: Teaching Twitter in Ukraine, Convincing the Skeptics of Its PowerJune 25, 2009
Twitter was the tool I was most excited and nervous about teaching in Ukraine. On the one hand, I think Twitter has a number of uses that make it a powerful tool for research, communication, and broadcast that are rather distinct in the Web world. On the other hand, it’s not something widely used in Ukraine, nor are these powerful uses immediately apparent from Twitter’s front page—the result is that Twitter may seem too simple to provide many complex uses. In other words, it can appear to the beginner to be a gimmick, something fun at first, but ephemeral. I was excited to teach Twitter precisely because I think it is powerful, and that few in Ukraine were using it at all, let alone to its potential. But that is also why I was nervous—the hardest thing about Web 2.0 technology is behavior change.
There were some things about Twitter in the Ukrainian context that I was particularly concerned would stand in the way. First and foremost, united among all of the Web 2.0 tools we were teaching, was this idea of freely spreading information to the world, letting go of control over it, thinking “What will be useful to someone else?” In my past experience in Ukraine, I have found that information is not something you just give away for free. In the Soviet Union, information was the real currency. It didn’t matter how much money you had, because there was little on the shelves to buy. You had to know someone with the goods on the black market. That information was the real commodity in the Soviet Union.
Now, fast forward to the generation following the Soviet Union, a generation upon which we are still on the cusp. There are still feelings that information is not something you just throw around for all to benefit from at no direct cost. Not everyone feels this way, but it’s still an issue. How weird the idea must be to suddenly be told you should regularly send Tweets with your daily pearls of wisdom, useful online articles you found, your feelings and reactions to a public event. This last one is especially pertinent—for many in Ukraine, what you think about things are still very much reserved for private spheres. Imagine how vulnerable one might feel at the thought of saying to him or herself, “I’m going to Tweet this information so ANYONE can see it, and not just the people in my immediate circle of trust”.
This approach to information, in my travels in Ukraine, has often presented a real challenge to NGOs there. Those I haveencountered tend to see information as theirs, and not something that should be available for all who can benefit from it, especially competing NGOs. NGOs in Ukraine can be VERY competitive for funding and resources. It was not rare, in the past, for me to encounter NGOs that would rather keep information that, if free, could have been very helpful to the public, in the name of maintaining their comparative advantage. It’s the mindset that if you have something that others don’t, but that others want, they will need you. Once they have what you have, it can threaten your existence as an organization. Never mind that your whole purpose as an organization is to help the public as much as possible, and to build your programs around the idea that, hopefully, you will one day no longer be needed. This is very complicated in Ukraine. And an American that comes in slinging around Twitter and encouragement for you to be free with all of your best information can easily be met with skepticism and suspicion.
Add to this basic issue that I was instructing them to put as much specific information about themselves as they could fit into their profiles. Put a link to a website where people can learn more about you, like your blog, or better yet, Facebook. Use your actual name in your username, so people can easily identify you, and you can brand yourself. Describe yourself so people can be certain you are the person they are looking for, and know immediately what you do for a living.
Not just that, but as you do all of this, you probably aren’t going to make any money out of it, directly. There’s no income for you for every Tweet you send, thus there’s no immediate incentive to start machinegunning Tweets, or really, send any at all. So why send them regularly?
What I tried to say to them was that Twitter is the sort of tool that, the more you give, the more you get. If you get all of the people you know to follow you, and start sending a lot of Tweets in the beginning, the people following your circle will start following you. Then, if you do a little searching for the big “connectors” (people with a lot of followers), and you can get them to follow you (often simply by following them first), you can tap into their followers. Send a bunch more Tweets, and blammo, your followers begin to lift off. The key is to Tweet frequently, if you can. A few times a day, at least. It will only take five minutes to do this.
Still, what is the benefit here? First, something I tried to drive home with each tool I taught was this idea of measurability. As a journalist, it can be very hard for you to know how many people are seeing your content. And eyeballs tend to equal advertising revenues, right? So, as a journalist, you want as many people as possible to see your content, to increase your advertising value, which in turn increases your value to your media boss. With Twitter, if you can amass, say, 10,000 followers, you can go back to your boss and say, “Hey, boss, look at how many eyeballs have CHOSEN to view MY content”. Numbers are powerful to bosses. At least, to bosses with good market economics and business sense (which is a whole separate issue we can get into in Ukraine, and I will probably write about in another post). Twitter is a great tool for amassing a large number of followers relatively easily.
Assuming you have content people want, of course. But then, if you don’t have content people want, you probably aren’t much of a journalist.
A second, and less obvious, benefit to Twitter, for journalists, is that it can be a POWERFUL research tool. If they choose whom they follow selectively, the updates they receive can have a higher concentration of useful information. I use this, in particular, to follow people who Tweet regularly with links to articles providing tips for everything from SEO for blogging, using Twitter for marketing campaigns, RSS for publishing in many places at once, and Facebook for building large networks of people for communication and mobilization. I just sit back and let my followers do my research for me.
Imagine you are a journalist. Whom would you want to follow? Probably people who Tweet often about your beat. Also, probably people who Tweet about tips for being a more effective journalist, especially in regard to New Media. You definitely want to follow any bloggers and citizen journalists who are prolific and tend to Tweet about topics in your beat. And, most certainly you should follow major media outlets Tweeting, both domestic and international, since news media tend to get many of their stories from other news media.
Wouldn’t you know, as I was training Twitter in Ukraine, that the perfect case study would come along in the form of the Iran election debacle. People all over the world were suddenly Tweeting reports of beatings and deaths, links of videos and articles, and generally sharing their reactions, among other things. For those out there covering this Iran situation, Twitter was a windfall of information, angles, sources, you name it. It was unfortunate that it was mostly in English. Yet, it still gave me something to talk about. Especially when I could point out that this information was moving faster than the traditional media covering it, bringing more and more people to it as a source of news.
That Twitter happens in real time is, for news media, absolutely crucial to its value. Of course, we haven’t seen mass violence or acts of terrorism in Ukraine in a long time. So, to convince Ukrainian journalists that real time reporting through Twitter is valuable requires something closer to home. I present to you my examples. 1. Coal mining accidents—out east, mines are collapsing all the time. 2. Ammunition storage facilities periodically catch fire, firing rockets and artillery in all directions, endangering locals. 3. Or, maybe a train carrying yellow phosphorus derails, releasing a toxic poisonous cloud that hangs over miles of villages and small towns. Yeah, good times.
Twitter has its place in Ukraine, too. With Twitter, it becomes possible for real time reporting from citizens, coal miners, news media, public safety officials, and so on. And seconds can mean the difference between life and death.
A third benefit is tapping into a swiftly growing population of people all over the world, including Ukraine. In March alone, Twitter’s number of visitors grew 95% to 19.1 million. This technology, too, is exploding. The only way anyone’s going to tap into that audience is to start using it. Perhaps it isn’t as big in Ukraine as elsewhere. But I am of the firm belief that A. there is a very good reason why this is happening everywhere else, including Moldova; and B. all it takes is someone to properly introduce Ukrainians to it, and that will change. Especially if journalists start writing about it. And they aren’t going to write about it if they don’t know a lot about it.
Most people at our trainings weren’t already using Twitter. And among those that were, only a handful were truly using it in the ways I am talking about. With any luck, and if I have done my job right, that will continue to change.
Not to be a Twitter evangelist. I just think this is an amazing tool that a lot of people don’t really understand, which I think is why some of the numbers make Twitter seem like it’s just a bunch of hype. It’s the easiest tool to use for a beginner, but in my opinion, the hardest to understand. It doesn’t help that the front page of Twitter reveals little more than updates, trending topics, and search. You have to go to other websites to tap into the more complex, more powerful uses.
But, where others see this as a problem, I see it as an opportunity. To train Twitter, reveal its power, change some minds.
Author’s Note: This is part of a series of posts on my experiences doing New Media trainings with Internews-Ukraine in June 2009, as part of their MediaNext initiative, in partnership with European Journalism Centre. These views are my own, and do not reflect those of Internews-Ukraine or European Journalism Centre. Just so we’re clear on that.
Photo 1: Twitter’s many other websites. Courtesy of Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten.
Photo 2: Twitter, as something bigger than what most people know it to be. Courtesy of premasagar.
Photo 3: Twitter, as a social network-there are real people behind those Tweets. Courtesy of CC Chapman.