Political Coverage That's All a-Twitter
When Each Character Counts, the News Update Is Short and Tweet

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.

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."

"Apparently Obama does not sweat when he works out about which you should be receiving a nutty email by dinner time."

And before the Biden selection: "We're to the point where people claim certainty about vice presidential picks the way the devout see Christ's face in table crackers."

Other journalists have joined the game, such as Portfolio's Matthew Cooper: "wondering what Maureen Dowd will do when she doesn't have the Clintons to kick around anymore."

Partisans can also play. "You know, if I picked Biden -- I'd announce it under cover of night, too," tweeted conservative blogger Mike Krempasky.

Some entries are more personal and, occasionally, caustic. From Time blogger Ana Marie Cox, the former Wonkette: "Henry [blanking] Kissinger in 1st class car w/me. Short for a war criminal. Will need more wine if he smiles @ me again. Also garlic & a stake."

Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar: "Yick. Mr. 'I Was An Edwards Campaign Staffer, Now I Sure Like Being On CNN' has way too much product in his hair. Sorry, in his mullet."

Washingtonian's Garrett Graff: "Amusing how much John Edwards trashed the Enquirer as a 'tabloid' last night--um, dude, they were RIGHT."

Speaking of Edwards, he had a Twitter page, too, with such entries as: "On my way to the 27th stop of our bus tour through Iowa. Can't believe we only have 1 day left. Elizabeth, the kids and I are having a b . . ." The updates ended -- not quite as abruptly as that last message -- nine months ago. Which is a shame, since they would be fascinating reading right about now.

Barack Obama's page, which has 65,000 followers, sounds like it's written by a staffer, with such uninspiring notations as this one on Aug. 6: "At a New Energy for America town hall meeting in Elkhart, IN. Watch the event live at http://my.barackobama.com/. . ." There is a John McCain News page, but it has just 1,300 followers.

Sklar loves the haikulike restrictions, "posting my real-time thoughts, impressions and wisecracks without having to worry about fleshing them out for a proper blog post. Working within that 140-character limit -- and still managing to get out your observation, your comment, your setup and punch line or what have you -- is great training for a writer."

Sometimes journalistic interest can flag. Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder hadn't twittered since February, but he is back in action for the conventions.

Not everyone is a cheerleader. Tech blogger Robert Scoble, who is active on the site, recently wrote: "I am always afraid of being noisy and stupid on Twitter until I read everyone else's tweets. Then I realize I will fit right in."

The site offers a quick way of reaching like-minded folks and gathering information. Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and blogger with more than 1,200 followers, asked his Twitter pals this question two weeks ago: "In a big and hard fought election, like the one we're having this year, what would happen if one candidate was significantly less truthful than the other in ads, speeches, interviews and public statements?" He used the responses (including mine) in a piece for Salon.

Sklar discovered an ancillary benefit in June when she wrote to a casual acquaintance, blogger Rex Sorgatz: "Your latest twitter is one of the reasons I like you without knowing you so well." After that e-mail, she says, "he wrote back suggesting we have lunch." They are now dating.

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