Twitter as the canary in the news coalmine

Here’s my latest Guardian column about Twitter as news (it got trimmed in print — damned scarce paper — and so here’s my draft):

Last Monday, when an earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province, word of it spread quickly from witnesses on the shaking ground via Twitter, the mobile-and-web microblogging service where users share brief, 140-character-long updates with friends. Prolific blogger and Twitterer Robert Scoble at insists he saw news of the quake on Twitter minutes before the US Geological Service posted the temblor and an hour before CNN and other news sites reported it.

Twitter is becoming the canary in the news coalmine. It stands to reason: If you’ve just gone through such a major event, you are sure to want to update your friends about it. If enough people are all chattering about an earthquake at the same time, that’s a good and immediate indication of a major news story.

Developers at the BBC and Reuters have picked up on the potential for this. They are working on applications to monitor Twitter, the Twitter search engine Summize, and other social-media services – Flickr, YouTube, Facebook – for news catchwords like “earthquake” and “evacuation”. They hope for two benefits: first, an early warning of news and second a way to find witness media – photos, videos, and accounts from the event. This is clearly more efficient than waiting for reporters and photographers to get to the scene after the news is over – though, of course, they will still go and do what journalists do: report, verify facts (which can be wrong from witnesses in the heat of news), package, and take their own pictures (which they then own).

These social services are also a source of witnesses for journalists to interview. After the Chinese quake, user “casperodj” reported his experience – “it did feel like the earth was going to split. literally everything was shaking” – and what followed – “CREEPY! while i’m typing, there’s an aftershock hitting!” – and the mood on the street – “the shitty concrete buildings around me are still ok though. people seem to be going back to work again” – and also told his readers when he’d gotten off the air with the BBC and Dutch broadcasters.

All this comes from a platform that does nothing more than enable anyone to tell anyone what they’re up to. But this is fundamentally new. We online citizens are living in public, revealing small details of our lives with our updates and our content. It’s in the smallness of this personal news that we can keep in touch with friends in ways we have not been able to since we lived in small towns, able to watch our neighbors’ every move. So perhaps this is not new at all but a return to the old ways: the electronic village, indeed.

London blogger Leisa Reichelt at has a name for this: “Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.” We get to see what our friends had for lunch and with whom, hear about their trips, see their new haircuts. The mundanity of it is the message.

“Isn’t this all just annoying noise?” Reichelt asks and answers: “There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like. Knowing these details creates intimacy.”

I have speculated in this space that our new publicness and permanence online will change even friendship, as we no longer need to lose touch with old acquaintances. Just last week, I met up and caught up with my high-school sweetheart after (gulp) 33 years and that was made possible only because she Googled me.

Now it’s also become clear that this publicness and immediacy is yielding both a new relationships and new value: ways to find and report news for a start. Perhaps our chattering will also reveal our collective mood (for that, go to and see all Twitter posts that include the words love, hate, think, and wish). Companies are now monitoring Twitter, as the smart ones have been watching blogs, to see what is said about their brands (the cable giant Comcast saw powerful blogger Michael Arrington of complaining about an outage in Twitter and quickly dispatched a repairman).

When we start putting our lives online, it’s now possible to take our pulse in new ways. And that’s news. For what is news, after all, but what is happening to us?