Monday, April 20, 2009

More people flock to Twitter as a conduit for information

Maybe you know about Ashton Kutcher’s obsession with Twitter. Last week the actor became the first tweeter to reach 1 million followers, and on Friday he got Oprah to join in.
You might have even heard about Corey Menscher, the new dad who made a tweeting habit of documenting every time his wife felt their baby kick before the boy was born in January.
But did you know this? The FBI twitters. So does the Johnson County sheriff’s office. Don’t forget the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. Or physicians in Wisconsin who on Thursday took followers through a knee surgery, tweet by tweet.
It seems this land of Twitter — where life is documented on the Internet in 140 characters or less — isn’t just about celebrities or the silly anymore. It’s about real information, in real time.
Sometimes that can be tweeters telling people about a shooting in their town, or about who was arrested overnight and is now in the county jail. Or letting residents know about severe weather headed their way.
“Twitter is a scanner. It’s a scanner of life, scanner of the country,” said Jen Reeves, an expert in new media and a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
And so many organizations are jumping in.
The sheriff’s office in Cass County, Mich. — population roughly 50,000 — posted its first tweet March 26. “Just started tweeting today! Hopefully found a way to get out our info to more of our citizens in a unique way.”
The next day: “Have more complaints of scams in Cass. People need to remember to NEVER give out personal info to unsolicited email, mail or phone calls.”
The FBI set up its Twitter page last fall, making it one of about 20 law enforcement agencies at the time with one. Today, at least 150 police agencies twitter, and the FBI has more than 2,600 followers.
During President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the bureau told its followers on Twitter which entrances to downtown Washington were closed and which were open. On a daily basis, tweets can be about new criminal charges across the country or wanted fugitives, even cold cases in need of information and where to call with it.
“The ‘Wanted’ posters of the past, while there’s a purpose for those, this is the new version of that,” said Special Agent Jason Pack, a spokesman in the bureau’s national press office. “Twitter is another tool we can use to put the faces and cases out there. … We want to keep up with the times and reach people we ordinarily wouldn’t be able to reach.”
Created three years ago at a San Francisco podcasting company as a way for people to instantly communicate with one another, isn’t just for the young. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the average Twitter user is 31.
And the number of those twittering grows every day. The same Pew study said that in May 2008, 6 percent of adult Internet users said they used Twitter or a similar microblogging service. Seven months later, the number had grown to 11 percent.

“People still ask, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ ” said Jen Humphrey, the spokeswoman for KU’s Biodiversity Institute, which includes the museum. “Microblogging is a phenomenon that has a great deal of power and allure for a community conversation.”
And the conversation is instant. Quicker than mass e-mails or phone calls, tweets can be sent to and from cell phones or BlackBerrys, too.
That is one reason Twitter would be a good way to alert students of an emergency on a college campus, such as a shooting or major incident, said Jeffrey Beeson, an MU spokesman.
“It’s the fastest way to notify people that we have,” Beeson said. “Hopefully we don’t have to use it for that.”

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