the news frontier

ICYMI: tweet chats

Building a community 140 characters at a time
September 7, 2012

Twitter is useful for many things, but its 140-character limit means conversation isn’t easily one of them. That doesn’t mean people aren’t trying. Twitter live chats have sprung up over the past few years and are increasing in popularity, used by movies and businesses as a promotional tool or by communities to foster engagement. Basically, they’re a virtual mixer, stripped of most of the useless chatter.

That seems like the kind of thing that’s made for journalists – get straight to the point, deliver the information, and back off. As the journalism world evolves and reporters change from ultra-competitive, secret-hoarding loners to information-sharing collaborators connected to the world and each other through social media, journalism-specific Tweet chats have become increasingly popular.

“I think we can say we’re the longest-running journalism-focused chat,” says #wjchat co-founder (and recent CJR contributor) Robert Hernandez. #wjchat began in February 2010 after Hernandez participated in another live chat called #journchat and found it full of PR people but lacking in fellow journalists. (#journchat bills itself as “a conversation between journalists, bloggers, and public relations folk” and was started by Sarah Evans in November 2008.) Hernandez tweeted “where are the journalists? Wrong name, but good PR?” That, Hernandez said, got enough responses from fellow journalists that he decided there was a place for a journalist-specific live chat.

#wjchat follows the formula most live chats do: a host (though Hernandez points out that about 30 of #wjchat’s 130+ sessions have been host-less, more free-flowing conversations) asks questions centered around a specific topic and participants respond. Everyone uses the same hashtag (in this case “#wjchat”) to make it easier to follow or to allow third-party applications such as Tweetchat to pick up chat-related tweets.

But #wjchat isn’t the only game in town. #muckedup, hosted by Muck Rack, began in May and has hosted 15 chats so far. With over 145 chats between them, #wjchat and #muckedup seem to have covered it all, from diversity in the newsroom to quote approval to jobs and j-school. Muck Rack co-founder Gregory Galant cites #muckedup’s fourth chat (topic: breaking news on Twitter) as an especially interesting one. Questions ranged from the best way to break news on Twitter to the best users to follow for breaking news. Participants ranged from Reuters’s Anthony De Rosa (@antderosa) to, much to my surprise, a guy from my tiny hometown: Alex Martin (@amartinmedia).

Martin, a new media specialist at the Record-Journal, says he “stumbled upon” #wjchat through some people he follows. He says he was “instantly hooked” by the passion and community he found there: “Everyone was sharing ideas, tips, experiences, etc. with the whole group to better web journalism practices as a whole.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

He participated in the chats every week until he was asked to join the #wjchat team in May. Martin now does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work for #wjchat, coming up with topics and questions, finding hosts, and running the @wjchat Twitter account. “It’s been an awesome experience and has improved my craft immensely,” he says, adding, “It’s also an incredible networking opportunity. On any given week, you will find journalism school students, entry-level reporters, developers, editors, marketers, veteran reporters, and j-school professors taking part … as any reporter/journalist knows, the more viewpoints there are, the better the story.”

Hernandez stresses the communal aspect of #wjchat, saying frequently—and passionately—that he thinks the most important thing is that sense of genuine community engagement, inclusion, and conversation #wjchat fosters.

Galant seems to agree, saying he’s been surprised at “how effective the Twitter chats are.”

“You’d think today everything can be time-shifted in the post-TiVo era, but a real-time conversation with many likeminded people is an unparalleled human experience,” he says. Muck Rack has gained “hundreds, if not thousands” of Twitter followers via the chats, and gotten to know those followers “in a much more intimate way.” Journalists get to know each other, “crowdsource” opinions and ideas, and build their own followings.

Yet all that intra-Twitter talk hasn’t diminished the value or importance of meeting in person. #wjchat’s first real-life meetup, about six months after its launch, drew only two people (including Hernandez), but these days, #wjchat meetups regularly attract over 100 attendees. Hernandez has seen #wjchat logos on college graduation caps and came across a March 2012 profile of featured Online News Association member Tauhid Chappell in which Chappell credited #wjchat for “stimulating my interest in online media.”

“That is what I do this for,” Hernandez says. #wjchat’s next meet-up will be this month in San Francisco during ONA 2012.

#muckedup is also bringing its community into the real world: The site is hosting its first New York City event on September 24 (#muckedup has also held meetups in Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco). “After seeing the success of the Twitter chat, we decided the next step would be to get people together in person, the ultimate social media,” Galant says.

#muckedup chats begin every Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET; #wjchat is every Wednesday, also at 8 p.m. ET.

Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.