The newsgathering role of mobile-phone tool Twitter continues to gather pace, as one subscriber capitalises on his account's success to launch a breaking-news service/news aggregator.
As a Twitter service, BreakingNewsOn (BNO News) became known for breaking news before it hit traditional media houses' wires. The Twitter account was set up in May 2007 by Michael van Poppel, based in Tilburg in the Netherlands. He says he realised the value of news that September, when he got hold of an unpublished videotape of Osama bin Laden which he sold to Reuters.
Twitter is a micro-blogging/social networking tool for mobile phones and web users. Launched in March 2006, it enjoyed an explosive rate of growth in 2008, with registered users topping six million, a 600 per cent increase in just 12 months.
The service allows users to send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters (known as "tweets"). Messages are displayed on the user's profile page on the Twitter website (www.twitter.com) and also delivered to those who have signed up to receive them, so-called "Followers". (At this stage, the social networks on Twitter are not as large as those found on social-networking sites such as Facebook. Barack Obama, for instance, had 232,970 followers on Twitter and 5,073,529 Supporters on Facebook, on 4 February).
The 26 November Mumbai attacks are considered a watershed, when Twitter activity marked the point (as Forbes reported on its website) that citizen journalism progressed to "real time".
"It was Twitter's moment. Users tagged posts with information or commentary on the crisis, turning a service that specializes in distributing short, personal updates to tight networks of friends and acquaintances into a way for people around the world to tune into personal, real-time accounts of the attacks."
Forbes points out that Indians were already "infatuated" with SMS, which went some way to explaining why the technology was so quickly harnessed in a crisis.
BNO News supplied 59 hours of continuous coverage of the Mumbai attacks, from 26 November. The BNO News blog (http://www.bnonews.com/blog) recorded on 3 December: "As the day went on, and as the news spread across the world, a record number of people joined BreakingNewsOn ...
"BNO News brought you updates from local media, international media, news agencies and even BNO News sources in Mumbai. BNO News worked over the course of the events on a detailed casualty list which showed the number of dead, the injured and their nationalities for each local hospital. The list was updated several times.
"BNO News also provided exclusive information from the Taj and Oberoi hotel management. Their staff shared up-to-the-minute details with our team about the situation inside the hotels and ruled out conflicting media reports.
"BNO's coverage on BreakingNewsOn also grabbed widespread attention among our current followers with hundreds of so-called 'retweets' [that is, tweets forwarded to other users] over the course of three days.
"And it also shows how journalists are following the service. De Pers, a national newspaper in the Netherlands, showed live updates from BreakingNewsOn on its website during the first six hours of the Mumbai coverage. Also, De Tijd, a newspaper from Belgium, cited information directly from our Twitter coverage in their stories. The story also told its readers to follow BreakingNewsOn for the latest news from Mumbai."
BNO signed up over 1,000 followers during and in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. It now (on 4 February) has 23,517 followers.(http://twitter.com/BreakingNewsOn).
The immediacy and growing popularity of Twitter has been a crucial part of BNO's success, and now Van Poppel hopes to expand the service into a breaking-news website (www.bnonews.com), planned to launch in late February or March.
Twitter alerts will provide an initial news item and a follow-up link to more reports on the BNO site. Alerts will be labelled "developing", "urgent" or "flash". RSS feeds, email alerts, compatibility with instant messaging platforms and SMS alerts are also in the pipeline.BNO News "tweets" headlines from wire services and major news events, but currently does not link Twitter "followers" to the stories on the web. Twitter users often use URL-shortening services such as bit.ly to allow longer URLs to be used as links within Twitter's 140-character limit.