Tech Notes: Tweeting the news
By Noam Cohen Posted Sep 30 2009
The microblogging service Twitter would, on first blush, seem the antithesis of news. If man bites dog is news, and dog bites man is not news, what then is a brief message —or “tweet”—about a man taking his dog for a walk?
Twitter is a privately funded startup that was created as a side project in 2006 to record such mundane, un-newsworthy activities, presumably for friends who are interested in the answer to the question Twitter asks its users, “What are you doing right now?” In its parodied form, Twitter has become synonymous with gadget-savvy narcissists who assume everyone wants to know their business.
And while there is more than a little narcissism displayed in giving hour-by-hour, or even minute-by-minute updates on your life, the gadget-savvy part is important as well. The strict limit on the length of tweets (140 characters, or barely two sentences) reflects the fact that Twitterers (those who post tweets, see glossary) are typically using their cell phones to broadcast their updates. Though cell phones make it hard to compose long messages, without such devices it would be impossible for those same Twitterers to be in the middle of living life while simultaneously describing it.
Yet, without anyone decreeing it so, Twitter has quickly become an important tool for journalists: It turns out that when a million people stare at their navels, more than a few of them will also notice that the ground is shaking, the plane is nosediving, the police are shooting. And journalists naturally want to be the second to know.
When US Airways Flight 1549 safely landed in the Hudson River after both engines failed, the first picture was posted via Twitter by Janis Krums, a passenger on one of the ferries that rushed to rescue the passengers waiting on the wings of the plane. While Krums showed admirable journalistic instincts in taking that photo and sharing it immediately, he later proved he was an amateur: He quickly gave away his iPhone (and thus his camera) to passengers trying to reach relatives, and didn’t report again on the crash for three hours.
During the height of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November, Twitter was recording a new message every second. That included people back in the United States who were obsessively watching local TV coverage in Hindi (thanks to the Internet) and summarizing what they saw, as well as people on the ground who reported hearing shots being fired and seeing commandos take their positions before striking. Back in Brooklyn, a young member of the Lubavitcher Hasidic community was giving important background on the family that ran a Jewish center in Mumbai that was among the sites attacked by Islamic militants. (The rabbi and his wife were killed, but their son survived.)
In a complex news story like the Mumbai attacks, which involved many different incidents and a variety of hostage situations, Twitter was a vital means of gathering as much information as possible. Journalists were later able to assemble this material into a coherent picture—the professional’s job, after all.
So how can tens of thousands of tweets help produce a coherent picture for journalists? Don’t they just represent more “noise” for a journalist to get past? Well, when news breaks, Twitterers quickly agree on a tag that organizes the material. Usually it involves a hash-mark (#) and a short word. For the Mumbai attacks, the tag was #mumbai; for Israel’s invasion of Gaza it was #Gaza. During protests in April against the Communist Party’s victory in elections in the former Soviet satellite Moldova, it was #pman, an acronym for the name of the central square in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau—“Piata Marii Adunari Nationale.” Again, no one “decides” this is the tag, it just occurs spontaneously.
Once you have the tag, you can then use Twitter’s search engine to filter out everything but those tweets that are intending to comment on or report on a news event. Of course, in those rare cases when new tweets are coming once-a-second, even this filtering hardly seems adequate. Yet even during such an onrush of material there should be no fear of hopping in —five minutes of scanning the tweets can produce genuine news, eyewitnesses and useful links.
Looking back on the material, it can seem quite thin—these are barely sentence-long dispatches after all. But when a story is breaking, tweets may reflect the work of tens of thousands of eyes and ears. And often they come from areas that the press has not been able to reach.
For example, when Mount Redoubt in Alaska exploded for the sixth time in March, it was immediately noted by Twitterers nearby, and was followed quickly by tweets from the Alaska Volcano Observatory, which gave detailed and exact information. All of these commentators, including the official one, had used the tag #redoubt.
In addition to searching for tags, another way to focus on relevant material on Twitter is to follow people, not just topics. Twitterers often link to personal home pages or blogs, so you can get a sense of who you are following—Why would they be in Mumbai?
For example, Harvard Medical School assistant professor Arun Shanbhag was staying in a fancy hotel in Mumbai visiting family and thus had a good view of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel as it was burning. His identification provided through Twitter makes it easy for a reporter to find him to follow up, and also gives further credibility to what he is describing. You can look back at earlier tweets, and if he describes being in Mumbai days before the attack, you at least know that he is most likely not inventing the messages. Rather than search Twitter under the #mumbai tag, you can keep checking in on Shanbhag’s tweets to see how the story is progressing in that one part of the city.
In addition to the eyes and ears, there are the brains on Twitter that a reporter can benefit from. The Wall Street Journal reported how Lova Rakotomalala, a 31-year-old medical assistant in Indiana uses Twitter as a way of spreading news about his homeland, Madagascar, during political turmoil. From his remove in the United States, he tracks news through blogs and independent witnesses—instead of the official news outlets that are controlled by the two warring parties. He translates from French and Malagasy. On one occasion, the Journal reported, his fiancée held her phone in a crowd so that Rakotomalala could transcribe a political speech and later excerpt it on Twitter.
It is hardly ideal journalism, he concedes, but in a territory where the official press cannot be trusted and outside reporters have neither the ability nor inclination to visit, Twitter may be the best we can expect. Other conflicts, like Gaza, where the Israeli military forbade foreign journalists to enter, and interior Africa can sometimes only be served by citizen journalists armed with their cell phones.
A computer program designed to collect and map text messages (whether through Twitter or directly to an organization) has been used in Kenya and in Gaza to track conflicts. A text-message is organized by when it was sent and from where. During the Gaza conflict, the program, Ushahidi, was improved by programmers for Al Jazeera to show reports of violence.
Ushahidi, which was created by African programmers, takes its name from Swahili. It means testimony.
reply – Used to signify when a public message is sent from one user to another. If you send a direct message to a user, username will precede the actual message.
Direct message – A private message sent from one Twitter user to another. Direct messages are filtered directly to a Twitter user’s inbox.
Follow –You can follow other Twitter users and they can follow you. To follow someone on Twitter means that you automatically receive tweets from that person. Every time they post, it will show up on your home Twitter page. If someone is following you, they will likewise see all of your tweets.
Retweet – To share the tweet of one user with all of your Twitter followers. Retweets are usually prefaced with “RT @username.”
Tag – Used to organize and search tweets; it usually involves a hash-mark (#) and a short word.
Tweet – A brief message posted on Twitter.
Tweeting – The act of posting a message on Twitter.
Twexting – To post a Tweet via a text message sent from a phone.