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Political Coverage That's All a-Twitter

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 25 -- John Dickerson, who covers the presidential campaign almost single-handedly for Slate, is a man of few words.

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He's quite chatty in person, and his online dispatches are reasonably meaty. But here at the Democratic convention, Dickerson is also sharing his views on Twitter.com, which requires extreme brevity.

"Obama picked Biden which is really going to decrease Hillary's chances at being his Vice President," he deadpanned right after the announcement.

It is the digital equivalent of a sound bite, a throat-clearing, a terse observation or two for a cloistered community online. How much can you say, after all, within the official limit of 140 characters (which this paragraph has already exceeded)? And why is it being hailed, by its enthusiasts at least, as a new, mutant form of journalism?

"If I have a thought that occurs to me, I'll fire it off," Dickerson says. "Sometimes it ends up being the lead of a piece, or the notion a piece gets framed around." At the same time, he says, "there's an element of narcissism and class clownery. A wisecrack comes into your head and you want to share it."

That, of course, can come back to bite you -- especially on a social networking site where anyone can read what you dash off unless you set privacy controls to limit admission, which sort of defeats the purpose. A clever line to amuse your buddies may look very different if a detractor pounces on it.

In an age of short attention spans, this may be the ultimate in boiled-down news, reduced to a shrunken kernel. Nuance and context and other boring ingredients are out; brief zingers are in.

Twitter was launched in 2006 and has 1.2 million users; they can choose to follow other twitterers by requesting an automatic feed of their updates. It attracts a healthy contingent of columnists, bloggers, tech wizards and other media types, but also young people who want to keep up with what their pals are doing. The Web site is positively bare-bones compared with Facebook, lacking the hundreds of photos, videos and long lists of fav-

orite bands and TV shows that some users favor. But it is easy to file "tweets" on the go -- "Enjoying the 60 degree weather before it turns into humid soup followed by thunderstorm," one person wrote -- from a cellphone or BlackBerry.

Tweets may be particularly well suited for highly scripted political conventions, where what passes for news is anecdotal and can evaporate within minutes. But it is the ultimate in narrowcasting -- Dickerson, for instance, has just more than 1,800 followers. Here are some of his updates, starting with one Monday from the Pepsi Center floor:

"Watching Michelle obama walkthru at podium-- daughter bangs gavel and says 'my dad.' "

"New McCain campaign video about how media is in love with Obama reminds me of those web videos the boys put out about their ex-girlfriends."


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