Twitter and the Power of Giving People a Voice

It didn’t get as much attention as his comments about generating revenue and fighting with Facebook, but to me one of the most interesting things that former Twitter CEO and co-founder Evan Williams said during his interview at the Web 2.0 Summit on Wednesday was his comment about how Twitter “lowers the barriers to publishing almost as far as they can go.” Williams said the impact of lowering these barriers is only beginning to be felt, and I think he’s right.

The answer came in response to a question from the audience about how Twitter empowers people to publish and effectively act as journalists, and Williams said lowering the barriers of entry into publishing is something he has worked on for most of his career (since he also founded Blogger, one of the leading early blog-publishing platforms, later sold to Google), and that he has done so based on his belief that “the open exchange of information has a positive effect on the world.” In a nutshell, Williams said, this is what the Internet as a whole allows us to do, and society is still trying to figure out all the repercussions that stem from “everyone having a voice.”

It’s not just Twitter that is empowering this, obviously — it’s everything from YouTube (s goog) and handheld video cameras to powerful cellphone cameras, from blog platforms and Tumblr to self-publishing via the Kindle (s amzn) and other e-book platforms. It’s an explosion of voices, and Twitter is at the center of it only because it makes “micro-blogging” so easy and the network has grown so huge that a tweet can be passed around the world and back before newspaper reporters are even getting their shoes on.

Yes, there is a lot of noise on Twitter, as Andrew Keen seems to argue in his recent debate with David Weinberger, but the point is that Twitter provides a firehose of both meaningful and non-meaningful data, in tiny bite-size pieces, and it’s up to you to figure out how to deal with it. That has led to some interesting tools aimed at “curation” — that is, pulling those fragments of information and conversation back together and making sense of them — such as Storify (built by former AP correspondent Burt Herman), and other services that allow you to pull together various threads from Twitter.

On an even deeper level, there’s a big opportunity to use that flood of 100 million tweets a day as the foundation for trend-filtering and other tools. Some startups have focused on how to use this to track social mentions of companies or products, such as Sysomos and Radian6, while others — such as Nick Hamstead’s DataSift and Tweetbeat, which was built by the analytical brains behind Kosmix — are trying to filter all that data and find out what the world is talking about in real-time. There’s huge potential there, not just for companies and advertisers, but also for journalism.

As Ken Doctor notes in a piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab — using Facebook’s new social inbox as the metaphor — news is everywhere now; it comes to us in all kinds of different forms and different ways, and obviously Twitter is one of those. Most traditional news organizations haven’t figured out how to use those tools effectively yet, or how to take advantage of this transformation of the news industry, but some are trying. At its best, during events such as the subway bombing in London or the uprisings in Iran, Twitter allows for the true “crowdsourcing” of journalism, and that is a very, very powerful tool for the pursuit of truth, broadly speaking.

Many people are still focused on Twitter as a tool for promoting movies or TV shows, or see it as a toy that geeks and their friends play with to amuse themselves. The real power in what Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone created (and what Ev Williams later financed and built into a company) could well be that it is the simplest, the easiest and arguably one of the most efficient forms of mass publishing — or at least micro-publishing — ever invented. As Williams himself suggested, we’re still trying to figure out the full ramifications of that. It’s a good problem to have.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Nany Meta