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Pattern Recognition: Chat to the future


Pattern Recognition: All a-Twitter



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Fifteen years ago I turned on the television minutes before the second hijacked plane crashed into the second World Trade Center tower in New York.

Watching on CNN what is still one of the world’s worst terrorist attacks seems as surreal now as it did then. It was an audacious use of a seemingly harmless mode of transport that forever changed international air travel.

Eight years later, in January 2009, an equally audacious, but positive event involving an airplane and New York City hit the news.

The difference was that pilot Chesley Sullenberger landed his US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after both engines were crippled by a bird strike.

The news wasn’t broken on CNN or any major news channel, but by a guy on a ferry with a cellphone camera.

"There’s a plane on the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy," Janis Krums (@JKrums) tweeted, using an early — now defunct — picture-sharing service called TwitPic.

Similarly, when bomb blasts ripped through London’s transport system on July 7 2005, now known as 7/7, the grainy, pixilated photographs taken on still-rudimentary cellphone cameras of commuters fleeing from trains in the underground railways defined those terrifying moments.

Both are examples of what is now broadly called citizen journalism, or essentially being in the wrong place at the right time with a cellphone camera.

When Michael Jackson’s death was first reported, on June 25 2009, it wasn’t by any of the major, established media brands — it was by the trash-talking, celebrity gossip website TMZ.

Similarly, the disappearance of Air France Flight 447 somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on June 1 2009 first broke on Twitter hours before the mainstream news picked up on it.

With the 15th anniversary of 9/11, a controversial new film about the "miracle on the Hudson" opening, and speculation after a board meeting that Twitter might be bought all taking place in the past week, it’s a reminder of how much the world has changed in the past decade and a half.

Social media now plays a key role in all of our lives, especially when it comes to news; 62% of Americans get their news from social media, according to a Pew Research Center survey, with 44% of US adults getting news via Facebook and 9% getting it on Twitter.

Twitter remains "the front page of news" — a place where you can see the breaking news of just about anything, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s surprise first visit to Africa earlier this month.

Even though it has 313m monthly users, Twitter’s growth is seen as stalled, and speculation is again rife that it will be bought.

The obvious buyers are Facebook and Google, both of which need the kind of real-time news feed that Twitter embodies.

It’s unlikely to be Facebook though, which recently said it is altering its algorithms to present more personal information and less news in its all-important news feed.

Google, on the other hand, has consistently failed at social media initiatives, and recently shuttered its Google Plus offering. But Google already sells advertising on Twitter (through its DoubleClick ad platform) and Twitter has given Google "firehose" access to all its tweets.

These are considered the two reasons Google might want to buy Twitter: for searchability of its vast network of messages and as a new sales opportunity. But it already has those.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, often rumoured to be interested in Twitter, has just bought the more business-orientated LinkedIn for US$26bn.

It’s hard to see who else might be interested, except perhaps another media or Internet giant like Verizon, which bought Yahoo for $4.8bn this year.

Twitter isn’t going anywhere just yet, but Wall Street senses a troubled company because of its slow user growth.

Sadly, that’s like blood in the water for the takeover sharks.

Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @shapshak