Twitter, for the uninitiated, is a social media Web site that began with the idea that people could stay connected by "tweeting" each other short answers to one simple question: "What are you doing?"
And while it may have been a bit frivolous at first, Twitter is increasingly being used by companies as a marketing tool, and for many, it's become a source for news.
How we get news and who reports it is changing dramatically. Breaking stories sometimes appear on Wikipedia and Twitter before they are reported by mainstream news organizations.
Hanson Hosein, for example, gets much of his breaking news from tweets — the Twitter messages of 140 characters or less that dance across his computer screen.
"I know if something really crazy happens in the world or something really interesting happens in my world — which is technology and communication — someone is going to pick it up pretty quickly and let us all know about it," he says.
Hosein, a digital media expert at the University of Washington, follows about 250 people on Twitter and receives everything they post on Twitter's Web site.
The Silicon Valley startup doesn't have any reporters or photographers; rather, anyone and everyone who sees or hears just about anything can post it online. Sometimes it's nonsense; sometimes it's breathtaking.
Hosein says that while many New York City reporters were in their offices on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009, many Manhattan residents and ferryboat passengers witnessed a US Airways plane land in the Hudson River.
"There were people there with their cell phones who could report on this," Hosein says. "Not necessarily professional journalists, but they're there, and that makes all the difference."
Hosein says that within minutes of the plane going down, an eyewitness snapped a photo.
"So that's the million-dollar shot — that's the money shot," Hosein says. "He's on the ferry, and he shot that. There's a plane in the Hudson, and I'm on a ferry going to pick up people. Crazy."
That and other Twitter messages were forwarded around the globe within minutes. They were picked up by traditional journalists who used that information as a starting point for their own reporting.
Similarly, traditional reporters sometimes take cues and get breaking news from Wikipedia, the free, online encyclopedia. Just about anyone can write and edit it, which explains, for example, how John Updike's death could be noted on the author's wiki page even before NPR could confirm that he had died.
Trusting News From Social Media
The big question: Can you trust the news you get from social media? Maybe not, says Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a training center for journalists.
"You know, just because a person says it, and says it online or says it on a Twitter page, does not make it true — not even close," Tompkins says.
Professional reporters, says Tompkins, have an obligation to verify information before they publish or broadcast it. But the widespread use of cell phones, computers and digital cameras has turned that tradition on its head. For non-journalists, he says, it's often "report first, verify later — if at all."
"The enemy of truth is speed, and in our business in journalism, we are always fighting that friction, aren't we? The Web, very often, has very little concern for truth and verification — let's get it out there, and then we'll sort it out," he says.
The challenge is to figure out what's true and what's not to be believed.