I jumped into an esoteric debate Wednesday evening: What is the most effective way mainstream media can use social media like Twitter? Should they never post RSS feeds automatically? Must every tweet be crafted by human hands? Notice that I don't say "old media," because I happen to think that term is bull. Plenty of supposedly "old media" outlets have been on the Web since the earliest days and produce innovative multimedia content that is as good as or better than anything found elsewhere in the "new media." But that doesn't make for a good story. (Yes, plenty of old media practitioners still have their heads in the sand. And I don't claim to have figured it all out -- my point is, nobody has figured it out. The Web is 20 minutes old. Nobody knows anything.)

Anyway, the first thing I re-learned was how hard it is to have an extended discussion on Twitter. My Tweets are in one place, under my updates. The other person's replies are somewhere else, and I can't even link to them easily on Twitter. I have to use this search tool. Messages are limited to 140 characters. We're surrounded by a cloud of unrelated tweets by others, in varying degrees of engagement, who also might get annoyed if you're posting every 30 seconds. There is no threading, and Twitter lacks other tools we expect in messaging/commenting software. (Direct messages on Twitter are even worse, as Robert Scoble notes.)

So for the sake of preserving this record, here's the discussion I had with somebody Twittering for the MediaTricks blog about media organizations that put up RSS feeds using services like Twitterfeed.

NYT is a culprit, with many automatic headline feeds, including one for the City Room blog, where humans also tweet sometimes. I follow MediaTricks on Twitter (they return the favor), and butted into a conversation about Twitterfeed. I have, with some labor, turned the tweets into a conversation:

[@mediatricks to] @baltimoresun: Congrats on turning off Twitterfeed. Thanks for the mention, too. Turning it off has been a winning formula for media so far.

[@palafo (me)] to @mediatricks: What's the argument against using Twitterfeed?

@mediatricks This is our argument: [MediaTricks blog link] Twitter is not a push medium. On Twitter, do you prefer following RSS over following people?

@palafo I follow both RSS and people on Twitter. I find it useful to have them in the same place. No need for rules; market decides.

@mediatricks Not rules, just advice based on our experience. We think media misses out on the "social" part of social media w/RSS via Twitter.

@palafo Really? Then why do 14,000-plus people follow CNN and NYT rss feeds? They're getting something out of it.

@mediatricks Check out @news8Austin or @kvue (RSS) vs. @kxan_news (human) to see apples-to-apples. Same market, same size operations.

@palafo Will do. I have posted a longer comment on your post, because Twitter is simply not a useful tool for an extended chat.

@mediatricks Followers are not getting social interaction still. People follow them b/c they're large & established. They're the exceptions.

@palafo Hm. It's not just media. There are power Twitter users who get personal but follow few people themselves. It's not that social.

It's possible there was some cross-talk here. The conversation continued over on the Old Media New Tricks blog. (The comments there are in reverse-chronological order, yet threaded, which I find a little jarring, personally.)

Here's my take. As I mentioned in my tweets, I use my personal Twitter account to talk to real people and to follow RSS feeds of selected news organizations and blogs. It is handy to have them all in one place.

Patrick LaForge: Twitter is too young for its users to start making up rules on how it should be used. Nobody knows until different approaches are tried. Let the market decide. CNN has about 14,000 followers for its feed. Someone gets value from that. Nobody's making them follow. Likewise, NYT has a variety of feeds for its sections and blogs that people follow, or don't. There are also many individuals who work there who have personal Twitter accounts (like me) who dive into the social interaction.

What I prefer is truth in labeling. If you are an individual on Twitter, use an individual's name or handle, and we can chat. Don't call yourself "IndyStar" or "MediaTricks." I expect an institutional name like that to be an RSS feed with only occasional human updates, and I don't really want it pestering me for feedback or crowdsourcing or sharing the views of an unnamed person who is paid to "keep it real" under the outlet's name.

Twitter is still a very small audience, not worth a lot of staffing resources for a large media organizaiton. It is also a flawed tool. No threading, poor archiving, inadequate search. I am posting on your blog because 140 characters was simply too limiting and bound to get lost in the flood of Tweets, not from RSS feeds, which are predictable, but from the umpteenth individual telling me what's for dinner tonight. (Don't get me wrong, I do get a kick out of that stuff.)

Robert Quigley: Thanks, Patrick, for the comment. I our defense of @mediatricks, our real names are listed in the bio. There's no hiding our identities.

We have found Twitter to be worth staffing, despite its flaws. It doesn't take that much to staff, and the feedback we've received is overwhelmingly positive.

You're right - the market can decide. I personally unfollowed @NYTimes (despite loving the paper) because it's an RSS feed, which I get from Google Reader. People can unfollow our account because they WANT an RSS feed. It's just our experience that people prefer a human-staffed account, therefore it's our advice. The NYT, WSJ, CNN are exceptions because they're mammoth national outlets.

You may call social interaction "pestering," but our followers (of @statesman and @ColonelTribune) haven't complained. Check out some the feedback from @statesman's followers. It's as much about brand-building (or more) than it is about getting people to click our links.

Twitter is still a small audience, but it is a social media tool. I don't think anyone doubts that. If your paper is going to use social media (Twitter or elsewhere), our advice (just our advice, not a rule) is to use it for *social* media.

Patrick LaForge: ... I don't think Twitter is all that social. Even the individuals on it are broadcasting their likes/dislikes, links, blog posts, what they had for dinner. There's a little back and forth but not a lot of tolerance for an ongoing conversation. It's not that social. There are big names on Twitter who are definitely humans posting, but they only follow a few people and have very little social interaction. The tool itself creates this asynchronous community, with very little to encourage more than passing interaction. It's not THAT social.

Quigley: Sure, it is what you want it to be. We happen to get quite a bit of useful social interaction out of it (beyond what you're eating). It has its limitations, but we don't think it should be dismissed because of them. And news organizations CAN benefit from that social exchange.

LaForge: Individuals within a news organization can benefit. I really don't see any value in WKRP pretending to Twitter like a live person. Because the examples you've sent me just look like a slightly more sophisticated version of a feed, maintained by a low level producer or assistant. It would be better for the on-air personalities and reporters to all get their own Twitter accounts and be themselves. And keep a feed out there, why not. That's my advice, based on my experience.

The only thing I would add here is that many people have no idea what Twitter is. Compared to Facebook or blogs or plain old Web sites, it is a niche Internet service with a small number of users. Even fewer people could tell you what an RSS feed is. So this debate is really esoteric nerdstuff.

There are other comments worth reading over there, probably more enlightening than my own unedited ramblings. I commend them to you, and the ether. Some day someone will make sense of it all, I'm sure. And someone else will pop up to disagree, in 140 characters or less, in a streaming video blast from his or her Mark V brain plug.