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Last month, a professional in the information business asked me, “What’s Twitter?”

This question came from a smart and capable guy, and so I was stunned. The best definition I could come up with at first was something stupid like, “Twitter? Uh, it’s . . . Twitter, you know, where you tweet?”

Business people: You are allowed to not like Twitter. You are allowed to not get Twitter. But c’mon, you’ve got to know which technologies are changing how people communicate. Or else, you’re going to get blindsided.

Journalists seem to be having a love affair with Twitter. (Guilty.) But can you blame them for trying? They know what it’s like to be blindsided.

The newspaper implosion shocked a lot of us in print media. McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt said 2008 was the “worst year” of his life. “By far.” He may have been talking about money, but down in the ranks, we were shocked by our loss of authority. We shouldn’t have been. The clues were there all along.

I still remember the Time magazine cover that arrived in my mailbox featuring a bendable mirror. The magazine’s person of the year designation at the end of 2006 was “you.”

“Welcome to your world.”

Some people called the “you” theme a cop out. I thought it was brilliant. I’d been reading the articles by Seattle venture capital reporter John Cook, and the Time report pulled it all together.

I could see “you” taking over in my own job when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer forced every reporter to stick a question at the end of articles to encourage discussion. Can’t think of a question? The default was and still is, “What do you think?”

A lot of us in the newsroom hated the policy. (I was love/hate at first but my thicker-skinned self now emphatically supports commenting.) We felt it cheapened our brand and undermined our authoritative voice. We let anonymous people tell us we were stupid, we let them post factual inaccuracies and blather. (Half the threads devolved into either, “Blame Bush!” or “blame immigrants!” or worse. “You” may be in charge, but “you” ain’t always intelligent.)

It turns out, comments were only the beginning. Next came unpaid writers and some of them were more popular than us. Lightbulb: It’s not about us. It’s about “you.”

They teach you in journalism school that it’s not about the writer. “Do you remember who wrote the story about the first moon landing?” the professor asks. “The reader doesn’t owe you anything,” says the writing coach.

They talk a good humble game, but I’m telling you the truth: The impact that “you” had on our industry shocked the smartest of us. We got blindsided.

The widespread adoption of Twitter by journalists is a determination to not get blindsided again. The journalists who are most with it are the ones who are following nearly as many people as who are following them.

Getting started

If you never got Web 2.0, and now don’t get 3.0 or whatever-the-heck we’re up to now (mobilephone.0?), here’s a video to get you started. It is 2.5 years old, still relevant, has been viewed nearly 10 million times on YouTube, and is superb. It captures so much of what I was trying to say in my former post about online journalism, and where it is heading.

(Hat tip for the video)

I have no doubt that my former colleagues at seattlepi.com understand most pieces of this video. RSS feeds and Twitter are literally in their job description. More and more businesses get what’s in this video. Every one of my friends under age 30, except maybe my favorite luddite, gets what’s in this video. Do you?

Oh, and now “you” get to define Twitter too. Or just go to twitter.com.

Update: Here’s another video on social media:

(Hat tip for the video)