I began catching up with events in Mumbai Wednesday at 1:00am in a Kiev hotel room. I started with frenzied remote control shuttling between CNN and  SkyNews (no BBC world, which I prefer). The same stuff everywhere. Fuzzy footage of the carnage, so-called experts on the phone with the host, etc. At the same time, I turned to my laptop and logged on to the New York Times. A little better: fresh stories, frequent updates. Same for a couple of French sites.
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Out of professional habit, I went to the wrong sources. None were as compelling as Twitter, the place to go on that very night.
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To get an idea, just go to Twitter.com, log in, go to the “#mumbai” channel and you’re in. Saturday morning, as I’m writing this note, Twitter is true to its name: tweets, prattling, back to normal – boring, questionable. But in the heat of the terrorist attack, Twitter was more valuable than global TVs’ endless loops. Twitter was the fastest stream of raw news — in less than 140 characters for each snippet. (See TechCrunch, or Wired for more commentary on Twitter’s role.)
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Fact is: Twitter is impacting news reporting. Thirty years ago, radio broadcast epitomized live journalism. Then came CNN which still relied on the radio format in many instances (cf. Peter Arnett, on his sat phone, reporting live the bombing of Baghdad — version 1.0  circa 1991 –  from the roof of the Al-Rasheed Hotel). Later, CNN developed live television broadcast capabilities. But even with the advent of high tech TV, holes remain. These are about to be filled with a mixture of mobile phone and Internet, the first iteration being applications such as Twitter.
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The Mumbai events are not the only ones where Twitter played a critical role. The list includes the earthquake in China and the wildfires in California.  (See the Wikipedia page on Twitter for further references).  As the Canadian blogger Matthew Wingram reports Twitter is undoubtedly a source of journalism. But, is it reliable? No more, no less than the usual live reporting.  Some even argue that the multitude is, by essence, way more reliable than the individual (see James Surowiecki book The Wisdom of Crowds). In June 2006, Wired ran a great story titled The Rise of Crowdsourcing with many examples of harnessing the multitude for a purpose, scientific research or innovation.
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Live reporting on the web is nothing new. As I was doing research for this article, I randomly asked — on Twitter — if someone could supply meaningful examples (without knowing who was seeing my question, I’m not a micro-blogging regular). An answer came immediately from Philippe Cove, media reporter at Radio France International (his  excellent French language blog here)  who sent me this link pointing to the Online Journalism Blog. There, I found a list of events, widely covered by live blogging, going back to 1998.
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Today, live blogging is expected by the audience. And it works. When French tennisman Jo-Wilfrid Tsonga became the star of the Australian Open Championship, the French site 20minutes.fr decided to provide live, minute by minute coverage of the semifinal. It sounded like a weird idea for such a visual event. As it turned out, the coverage drew 40% of the site’s audience that day. Since then, 20minutes.fr repeated the feat many times, always to high scores (it helps that the execution is flawless). This new genre has been applied to all sorts of events such as the feud for the control of the French Socialist party two weeks ago. This political drama, unfolding in the middle of the night, was much more compelling when followed through live blogging rather than with radio or all news TV. The conventional media appeared out of sync (to say nothing of newspapers having to wait 36 hours before publishing their own account, well reported, no doubt, but almost useless).
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What’s next for live blogging?  Mashups. Mixing news (text, photos, videos), with maps, graphs, timelines, is one of the next big things on the Net (for at least six months). For a good implementation of the idea, see this amazing application called Dipity.  It is a timeline dynamically fed by all the crowd-powered news you can think of (Flickr, Digg, YouTube, Twitter of course, etc.) plus any RSS feed you need. Just set the news feed on the event you want, and it adds up automatically. You can, of course, embed your Dipity feed on your site or blog (see here for examples)
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Now comes the time to wallow into the mundane. Can’t wrap up this issue of the Monday Note without asking: Who makes money with this?  Short answer: nobody does. Twitter enjoys a stunning growth: about 3 millions users,  + 343% in one year according to Cnet. Great. The venture is financed by eponymous capitalists who coughed up $20m in several rounds (the last one granting a $98m value for the two-year-old startup). Twitter is not Facebook and has a much more modest burn rate: a staff of 17, no huge photo library requiring thousands of servers, just short bursts of text. Still, Twitter endures the pains that come with its fast rise. Recently, it undertook a management reshuffle as its financial backers were bluntly dismissing the business model query: “It’s like the stupidest question in the world,” said Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson to Wired.  “It’s like ‘How was Google going to make money?”.
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Well, it seems we’re back to the usual trick: first, get the audience and monetize later. Except that, in the current context (the collapse, volume and price, of the ad market), the trick gets harder, especially on Twitter’s grand scale. And the comparison with Google is nonsense. Google offers an unparalleled service, to the casual user as well as to thousands of businesses which are making money (or getting traffic) with it. No such thing with Twitter. Better find something else, for instance charging hard dollars for legions of corporations considering Twitter for business uses, as does Yammer which provides the same service on a much smaller scale.
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This uncertainties were not a deterrent for Facebook. It reportedly offered to acquire Twitter for $500m… mostly in stock (Facebook is a privately held company). Not a good idea: valuing Facebook’s share is a lottery game (see Monday Note #60). The talks collapsed a month ago, according to the Wall Street Journal blog All Things Digital.  That was not necessarily a bad thing for Facebook: execs quoted by All Things D  said “if Twitter was offered to Facebook’s 120m users, Twitter’s new owner might have to deal with huge SMS fees, $75m annually”.  This because Twitter relies a lot on text-messages in the US market.
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Once again, eyeballs do add-up in the millions, but monetization remains elusive. Probably for a long time. –FF

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