Many years ago I had a boss who believed that some of the best stories could be obtained by hanging out at the local bar. Given that he took a long, liquid lunch nearly every day at the corner bar, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I was reminded of it just last month, as we were exploring the new “social media” at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce Trade Fair. One of the panelists compared the advent of social media to the early days of the Internet. If you were late responding to the new opportunities of a decade ago, don’t make the same mistake now with social media, she said. Another social media proponent advised that we think of Twitter, the platform du jour, as a “giant cocktail party that follows you around.” It’s an open bar with great stories and free booze.

Sounds good to me. And maybe it does to you, as well. So good that you might want to start sinking some time or money into social media. Here at U.S. 1 we have already bellied up to the Twitter bar, offering Tweets that are drawn mostly from our website, www.princetoninfo.com.

And if the newspaper business begins to drift into the Land Before Time, we are poised to jump feet first into a place where we can generate content anytime we want, where users of the site contribute content at no cost to us, and where, instead of having two dozen deliverers muscling 19,000 copies of a newspaper out of the parking lot every week, we can connect with the world anytime with the click of a mouse. This party sounds pretty damn good.

But what do we get for our Twitter investment? And how can we parlay this social medium into a viable business? For the past four days I decided to follow four different Twitterers, all based in Princeton Borough, to take an inventory of what’s being served at this floating cocktail party, and what the rest of you are missing by not being there:

Barbara Figge Fox, U.S. 1’s senior correspondent, has removed herself from the chains of our office and has found time to update a blog, Princeton Comment, and a Twitter site. In recent days she wrote about Princeton professor (and Barbara’s Cedar Street neighbor) Melissa Harris Lacewell’s take on the Obama Peace Prize controversy; the appearance of Princeton Air’s Scott Needham on a CNN television show; and the news of Mistras Holdings’ initial public offering (which led to a news item in this issue of U.S. 1).

The Mistras item shows that, even in the virtual world, local counts. Fox saw a car in the supermarket parking lot with Mistras on the license plate, and introduced herself to the owner, the CEO, whom she had interviewed previously. He mentioned the IPO, and she took note.

Fox’s tweets are reminiscent of meeting an old colleague for a cup of coffee before work. Would I pay to get Barbara’s tweets? No. But if she aggregated them into a weekly newsletter I would look forward to it. In fact, the New Jersey Press Association does just that every Tuesday, and it makes me happy to renew my membership every year.

Princeton Public Library, with a name suggesting traditional media, turns out to have an active presence on Twitter. Its twitter site dispensed 22 tweets in the last week. Almost all of the tweets had to do with offerings at the library.

Would I pay for any part of it? No. But back in the day when my two boys spent many after-school hours at the library, I would have welcomed the stream of updates.

The Princeton Tour Company uses its Tweets to boost its brand and to establish itself as a guide service that knows more about Princeton than most natives do (as U.S. 1 indicated in a May 6 profile of founder Mimi Omiecinski).

By following Princeton Tour’s tweets I learned that only in Princeton will you find a multi-millionaire working as a crossing guard, and that the inspiration for the “Rain Man” movie lives in town.

Would I pay for the Tweets or buy a plug for my business? No. But if I had friends coming to visit, and I planned to send them on one of Omiecinski’s walking tours, I would have them follow the Twitter site for a few days to get the feel of the town.

Princeton Scoop is taking a commercial approach to Twitter, and will Tweet news of special offerings or discounts from merchants or restaurateurs at a monthly charge. Princeton Scoop fired off 72 tweets in a seven-day period, including plugs for Conte’s Pizza, One53 restaurant, Bent Spoon ice cream, Princeton Record Exchange, Halo Pub, Princeton Forrestal Village’s car show, and Santino’s Bar One restaurant.

It also provided updates on the Pennies for Peace fundraiser at the Public Library and alerted me to such disparate events as National Sausage Day and Professor Cornel West’s appearance on PBS.

Would I pay to have my business plugged by Princeton Scoop? No. The target audience of stay-at-home moms and weekend shoppers seems too limited. Even at a projected charge of $100 a month, Princeton Scoop will need a lot of satisfied advertisers to sustain a business.

And how do you turn that cottage business into a profitable enterprise? Melissa Hall Klepacki of Princeton Scoop already has a weekly newsletter on the drawing board, to overcome one of the key limitations of Twitter — you have to have your own Twitter page open or be watching your RSS feeds for Tweets. She also envisions franchising her model.

That’s one approach. Here’s another idea for a Twitter application that could attract millions of users, who would be both producers and consumers of the content (a publisher’s dream). Let’s say that the world of 4G smart phones is here and they include a GPS system. When we take off on a trip we log our smart phone into a Twitter site (maybe a subscription service), which brings us into a group of Twitter followers who all within five or six miles of us.

We see a traffic jam up ahead and we send a Tweet. Someone else in our traffic circle notes a possible detour and shares that Tweet. All along the way we keep acquiring and sharing new intelligence: a speed trap on the southbound side, ice building up on an overpass, an accident blocking a lane, and so on.

This one is not too good to be true. In fact, such a system was once the rage on America’s highways. In the 1970s the CB radio system, used originally by long-distance truck drivers to communicate with one another, became a craze that spawned movies (“Convoy,” for one) and led to sales of millions of radios. People like my father and siblings in upstate New York wouldn’t leave home without their CB radio.

But the craze died out just as quickly. Why? Its own popularity was one problem — the air waves got clogged, just as the screen of your hand-held smart phone might. Juggling all that chatter from anonymous “good buddies” might have been another turn-off for drivers who often are trying to relax behind the wheel, not run a road race. And while the information may have seemed valuable at first, the knowledge may not have been useful. You often ended up stuck in the traffic jam whether or not you had advance knowledge of it.

Will Twitter go the way of CB radio? I don’t know, but I do know that 16-year-old superstar Miley Cyrus has just abandoned her Twitter site and her 1.1 million followers. My two teenage sons have no interest in Twitter — they just text.

As I reflect on my four days of tracking Tweets, I feel a little like I feel after I have overstayed my welcome at a cocktail party or at the corner bar. Yes, I did get a story out of it, but my head hurts a little from all the noise.

Facebook Comments