How Twitter transformed political reporting

Political commentators must possess a sense of history, an ear for gossip and the courage to hold our rulers to account. I also couldn’t do it without Twitter, writes John Rentoul

The secret of Twitter’s success is that it sounds stupid. No one has to take it seriously, which means anyone can use it for anything they want. And, because the idea is so devastatingly simple, they do. You write short messages to a group of people who choose to read them, and read short messages written by people whom you choose.

If it were not for Twitter, I would not know about The Food (Jelly Mini-Cups) (Emergency Control) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2010. It is apparently genuine, the “best Statutory Instrument ever” as Arieh Kovler said when he tweeted it while I was writing this. Well, before Twitter, that is, before 2007, someone might have put it on a blog, but it doesn’t need more than 140 characters, and it is worth only a moment. Twitter can spread that moment more quickly and farther than blogs, because all you have to do is “retweet” it – pass it on – to your own followers. Add one quantum to the sum of human happiness.

Researchers at the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have studied Twitter and decided that it is a news medium more than a social network, but the joy of it is that it is both. I use it to keep in touch with other political journalists, politicians and other people who are interested in politics. The joy of it is its connectedness. The Korean researchers found that the average degree of separation between any two Twitterers is four. That is, information needs to pass through four hops to get from anyone with a computer or mobile phone anywhere in the world to me, from follower to follower, to someone whom I follow. Unlike Facebook, where the average degree of separation is six – which is also what Stanley Milgram found in his “small world experiment” in America in 1967, when he asked random individuals in Nebraska to forward a parcel from acquaintance to acquaintance to a named person in Boston.