Turning On to Twitter

I tweet now. And I love it.

I did not think I would ever say that. I’m not a fanatic, but I’m a fairly regular tweeter.

Just six months ago I wasn’t even using Twitter, the social media site that allows you to post 140-character updates, similar to Facebook, but with less clutter. Friends would push me to use it, and I was the guy saying: “Oh, I don’t need another distraction,” before relenting and promising to check it out “one of these days.”

One of those days finally came last spring, but it was a report by Nick Mortenson that taught me that this previously impenetrable language and quirky format could actually be a dramatic new storytelling mechanism.

Mortenson, mind you, is not a reporter, but a comedian who lives in Madison. On June 30, 2011 his apartment building started on fire.

“Live tweeting: My building @ 24 N. Webster in Madison has erupted in flames,” he tweeted, with a picture attached.

He tweeted further updates about the fire, pictures of firemen, traffic detours and, impressively, jokes.

“If your apartment building has to go up in flames, better to have it happen on the 30th than the 1st,” he tweeted a couple hours in.

Eventually people started tweeting back their concern, and Mortenson started to realize how bad the situation was.

“Total loss. Everything I own destroyed. Time to get started building a newer & better life,” he tweeted four hours after the fire began. Then a couple jokes, then neighbors crying, neighbors he’d never met before the fire.

Then, finally, eight hours into the experience, he tweets “If you are wondering how it feels…it feels a Hell of a lot like freedom. All that stuff was starting to define me.”

It wasn’t the Arab Spring, or a Presidential debate, but an apartment fire. Still, it was a powerful, local story, and I realized that same thing could translate here.

Twitter provides, in type, a new blend of experiencing and reporting. Squeezing updates on a story into 140 characters is inherently incomplete. It’s extremely difficult to provide any context to a quote or a comment, and it can lead to frequent errors and mis-understandings.

But it can also provide something a normal news story cannot. It can take the reader along for the ride of discovery, and connect him to the emotions of the reporter as he reacts to developing news.

Last night I used Storify – a website that allows users to compile stories out of tweets, posts, and photos – to compile a batch of my own tweets from the Sept. 29 windstorm that throttled Door County. When I finished I recognized a similar, if less emotional, arch. When the winds began to blow I was not on the clock, but meeting friends at the Waterfront restaurant in Sister Bay, a few steps from my house. The power had just gone out when I walked from The Waterfront to JJ’s next door, but the wind nearly knocked me down.

“Door County is blowing away,” I tweeted, with no idea how bad the storm was.

Soon I came across a tweet from WPS saying that winds had knocked power out all over the peninsula. My path home was blocked and I took a long detour. When I got home I tweeted again.

“Sister Bay blacked out. Branches, trees down. Maple, Scandia, Hill rds blocked. We’ll see what the morning looks like.”

Morning looked worse than I imagined, with trees down everywhere. I drove around Northern Door taking photos with my phone and tweeting them with updates and even some jokes.

Soon my feed turned to updates about where the power was on, and when those without power might get it back. Then, my brother sent me a photo from my parents’ house. He and I had worked with my mom and dad for several weekends last May and June to build a large greenhouse for them. They sell produce from their garden at local farm markets, and the greenhouse would help them extend their growing season.

The storm had upended the 70 X 30 foot structure, turning it over on itself and mutilating the metal and plastic. It was a total loss.

“Minor in light of countywide damage, but really bummed to see my parents’ new hoop-house demolished by the storm,” I tweeted, along with a picture of the most impressive structure I had ever had a hand in building (obviously, I am not much of a handyman) now doubled over itself like a hyper-extended centipede. Though incredibly minor as tragedies go, the image was a punch in my stomach.

Some say technology makes this business more impersonal, but as Mortensen’s experience, and my own, shows, it can also make it more personal than ever.

Here’s Mortensen’s full story in tweets, then check out the Storify of Dannhausen’s windstorm experience. You can follow him on Twitter at @MylesPulse or follow the Peninsula Pulse at @PenPulse.