Posts about twitter

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 scobleizer.com 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 disambiguity.com 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 twistori.com 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 techcrunch.com 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?

Ambient intimacy

Leisa Reichelt says that the syncopated updates we share publicly with friends and followers in Twitter (and blogs and Flickr….) add up to what she called “ambient intimacy.”

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. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

Who cares? Who wants this level of detail? Isn’t this all just annoying noise? There are certainly many people who think this, but they tend to be not so noisy themselves. It seems to me that there are lots of people for who being social is very much a ‘real life’ activity and technology is about getting stuff done.

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. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.

Right. I argued in this post and column sometime ago that these functionalities — plus our ongoing connectedness on Facebook and our searchability via Google — will have a profound impact on friendship and our relationships. I said there that they will keep us in touch longer and so we can’t just lose people anymore. Reichelt says they also change our current relationships and I agree. It’s quite an insight that this causes a new kind of intimacy: We see the things we wouldn’t see in others’ lives unless we were damned near living together. For some people, I couldn’t care to know that much. For others, she’s right, it is a handy way to catch up, to be in touch.

I’ve mentioned here that I’ve found and been found by friends I haven’t seen in decades (more than I’ll admit) thanks to one or the other of our Google shadows. I’m about to meet up with one of them and we’ve been doing this catchup dance via email, which is also new and fits under Reichelt’s umbrella, I think, for it’s just a cold technological tool that makes it easy to update and catch up. If I’d been catching up via Facebook or Twitter or blogs all that time, the possibilities and definitions of friendship would be different.

Reichelt also talks about the flipside of this, ambient exposure: the publicness that makes this possible but also creates some vulnerability. And each force us to define our societies, the people we want to share with: one person on an email, a few people in a chat, a defined group in Facebook or Pownce, a group we don’t define (if we’re public) in Twitter, anyone at all in a blog.

What a great time to be a Reichelt writing about this or a Danah Boyd studying it or a Tara Hunt living it.

On the pulse

It’s fascinating how new layers of Twitter as a platform for our thoughts keep emerging.

I saw Twitter-maker Ev Williams say today that he loves Twistori, which was inspired by friend Jonathan Harris’ WeFeelFine. It simply pulls out the tweets that have the words love, hate, think, believe, feel, and wish in them. It’s oddly compelling.

I’ve also seen work by the BBC and Reuters, among others, in trying to extract news from Twitter (and other us-created media) by looking for the hot words of news (explosion, evacuate…). This becomes a sort of canary in the news mine. People are writing about their lives and when news happens to or around them, they’ll surely tell their friends about it and now that is aggregated and searchable.

Next I expect someone to come up with a national mood index based on our tweets. Today, we’re feeling self-conscious.

Campaign placement

The most fun I had Twittering the election last night was immediately seeing the three Abercrombie & Fitch guys dudes standing behind Obama. Coinicidence? Conspiracy? Product placement. Either there is a story there or the Obama campaign is its own demographic clliche.

Maybe it’s the latter. The Toronto Sun said yesterday:

Hillary is minivans and American sedans, Barack is Range Rovers and Hondas. Hillary is cross-trainers with jeans, Barack is Abercrombie and Fitch and Banana Republic. Hillary is Dunkin Donuts, Barack is Starbucks. And their supporters are equally vocal, in different ways.

: LATER: USA Today talks to A&F, who says they had nothing to do with it. Ditto the campaign. The USAT blog is asking, ‘Anybody know these guys?’

Twittered out

Been Twittering the Pennsylvania vote coverage like a madman tonight.