A dilemma for viewers in Denmark waiting for daredevil Felix Baumgartner to break the sound barrier was whether to switch to the international TV hit, The Killing (Forbrydelsen). Ten minutes before the show, sportscaster Ulla Essendrop voiced Denmark’s frustration by tweeting: “JUUUUUUUUUUUUMP.”
Two days later, Washington Post journalist Erza Klein tweeted “My sources say Obama will enter tonight’s town hall by space jumping from approximately 130,000 feet…” The President’s successful comeback that evening was dissected by 7.2 million tweets.
Of course, many still view Twitter as a fleeting pastime. But there are 140 million active users monthly and the company is valued at billions of dollars. To prove once again that tweeting is more than an official couch sport, here are four reasons why Twitter is important.
First, it provides up-to-the-second snapshots of events. Live blogging can only stream information through one channel. But with Twitter, users can tap into endless channels for instant fact checking, expert commentary and belly-aching humor. The result is a deeper, more sophisticated understanding.
This is illustrated by the Twitter reaction during the second presidential face-off. One debate question concerned the doubling of gas prices since Obama took office. Resembling two fighting bighorn sheep, the candidates clashed horns repeatedly, but generally avoided answering the question. The confusion was settled when experts tweeted that prices plummeted because of the global financial crisis and that gas prices are largely controlled internationally, with little help from the President.
Second, while breaking news used to be captured through photos or quotes, now it is tweeted. Similar to interpreting intelligence data, the trick is to find the gem. Last summer, many were convinced that America’s near-universal health care program, ObamaCare, was stillborn. This was because it was assumed that the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority would overturn it. But according to legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin, conservative Chief Justice Roberts’ switch to save the program was leaked via Twitter two months before the Court upheld it.
Third, Twitter further breaks down the barriers between average Janes and the famous. Michael Moore, the director of the film Bowling for Columbine, dedicated his day to getting Americans to vote on November 6. He provided his cell phone number, tweeting: “If u know someone who isn’t going to vote but might if I called or texted them, text me their cell # …” Five hours later, he tweeted his 1.2 million followers, “Thx for sending numbers of your loved ones who weren’t gonna vote. Have been on the phone or texting with scads of them for the past 4 hrs!”
Moore’s example provides direct evidence of a final advantage: Twitter’s potential to spur democratic participation. Admittedly, it can be difficult to measure just how effective Twitter is. But Lady Gaga tweeted and retweeted her 31 million followers 13 times on Election Day. One tweet read, “If you’re old enough to vote for the first time, exercise your right today! It matters & can change the world.” If anyone could convince a young American to vote, it is she.