With Twitter, a Desperate Need for Context

70 thoughts on “With Twitter, a Desperate Need for Context”

  1. That’s a great point, Om. I think in a lot of ways, people are now being exposed — through Twitter and blogs and Qik and so on — to the kind of firehose of information that journalists have traditionally been exposed to through wire services, eyewitness reports, etc.

    Some people like that never-ending cascade of information, but there is still a lot of room — and maybe even more need — for the adding of context and thoughtful analysis (not to mention fact-checking). That’s where the real potential for journalism lies, I think, whether it’s delivered by “traditional” journalists or not.

  2. Really good point. I think there’s a definite role which has been suggested for ‘traditional media’ to becoming curators and contextualisers of the torrent of content which is being produced on a second by second basis, and as Mathew said above, it’s where the skills of journalism should be utilised to provide fact-checking, analysis etc.

    I think there is also progress to be made around contextual filtering of the information – as simple as having a separate hashtag for Mumbai news, or Mumbai reaction, or a method of selection and filtering by the end user. I don’t have a particular example in mind, but having gone through the aggregation of friends and content from various locations to single locations like Friendfeed, it seems like the next logical step for the sheer weight of content that results.

  3. Really good point. I think there’s a definite role which has been suggested for ‘traditional media’ to becoming curators and contextualisers of the torrent of content which is being produced on a second by second basis, and as Mathew said above, it’s where the skills of journalism should be utilised to provide fact-checking, analysis etc.

    I think there is also progress to be made around contextual filtering of the information – as simple as having a separate hashtag for Mumbai news, or Mumbai reaction, or a method of selection and filtering by the end user. I don’t have a particular example in mind, but having gone through the aggregation of friends and content from various locations to single locations like Friendfeed, it seems like the next logical step for the sheer weight of content that results.

  4. It is a shame that Twitter had to end SMS services in the UK & Canada as this threatens the raw news stream. Great article though I can only imagine the emotions you would experience while trying to make sense of the torrent of data coming in.

    @mathewi Thanks for posting the link to this blog on twitter.

  5. @Mathew

    I agree. I think it is a scary prospect for the media establishment because I think most still confuse large for impactful. I think the industry is going to be smaller, nimbler and more participatory or else someone will figure out a way to do this better.

  6. It’s only receiving Twitter via SMS which has ended, so uploading to the raw newstream is fine – and I’d suspect trying to receive it via SMS would leave you bankrupt and infuriated pretty quickly. For consumption it’s Smartphone and wifi all the way!

    The other aspect will be the addition of video via Qik, Seesmic etc, alongside images via Flickr/TwitPic etc, plus text via Twitter.

    The question of how to filter, particularly with content that is unlikely to be tagged (I’m in an earthquake – should I use earthquake or just quake for SEO metadata?) is an important question…

  7. It’s only receiving Twitter via SMS which has ended, so uploading to the raw newstream is fine – and I’d suspect trying to receive it via SMS would leave you bankrupt and infuriated pretty quickly. For consumption it’s Smartphone and wifi all the way!

    The other aspect will be the addition of video via Qik, Seesmic etc, alongside images via Flickr/TwitPic etc, plus text via Twitter.

    The question of how to filter, particularly with content that is unlikely to be tagged (I’m in an earthquake – should I use earthquake or just quake for SEO metadata?) is an important question…

  8. Om,

    I’ve long held the belief – even before I left newspaper journalism – that traditional media should adopt to the immediacy of the Web by focusing on telling people what things mean (context) as opposed to what happened (news). It’s an important difference but newspapers, in particular, have failed to embrace context as much as they should. People still appreciate context, which is why the NYT and the Wall. St. Journal should use this kind of reporting as a strategic pillar.

    Mark

  9. It’s certainly an interesting post addressing a real problem. I know a number of people are experimenting with the notion of putting the unfiltered information side by side with vetted traditional media reports. Check out the CrisisWire page on the Mumbai attacks, there’s certainly a wealth of information both raw and with context. It may not totally solve the problem, but it’s definitely a start.

    http://crisiswire.com/2008/11/mumbai-attacks

  10. Om
    Ive thought about this over the last 72 hours as well – I found 3 levels of journalism. At one end was Twitter that broke news. At the other end was the TV networks in the US that did as you describe above. What was new and really useful was The BBC that did a great job of analysis based on short bursts of emerging data – analyzing a few hours worth of detail that brought context to help ascertain progress or deterioration over the course of each day.

    For me the summarizing of snippets of information served as a much better accompaniment to the immediacy/fragmented/repetitive updates from twitter. The big networks in the US, and the poor sensational reporting and rhetoric from the Indian channels was of little use.

    If I hear IBN call the situation “action and drama” once more, I’m going to puke. This is not a bollywood shoot.

  11. I completely agree that there is room for both types of journalism and that they are in fact complementary. I posted on this last night (as it happens, I used your tweet as a reference), but have been plagued by the feeling that I didn’t make my conclusions clear.

    I’ll update my blog entry with a link to this post ASAP ([http://billglover.co.uk/]).

  12. om said “I have been glued to my computer screen — actually three of them”

    No amount of filtering offered by a service will prevent this emotion within you.

    For us, we felt a solid understanding of the facts, and trajectory, within a few hours. Our system continued to filter the throttled twitter firehose. Today, our first impressions remain correct.

    A bigger issue remains – few of us have the web presence to broadcast these [early] facts to affect the trajectory of the bandwagon.

  13. I think you make a good point. But I think the two streams can work together. We get immediacy that’s maybe less than accurate initially and it may be frustrating and lack in context, but soon enough we get the context. I think the situation would improve if more news operations got into twitter, so you’re getting a stream of more accurate news that way. People will be able to tell the difference from a tweet from an AP bureau, for example, and a tweet from a regular citizen.

  14. @Mark,

    This ” People still appreciate context, which is why the NYT and the Wall. St. Journal should use this kind of reporting as a strategic pillar” is billion dollar advise and I hope someone from the big newspapers is actually paying attention to all this stuff.

  15. @bloggingmom67 I agree with you … that is the whole point of the post. Media and Medium are changing and the news flows should evolve around that change. I think Twitter is a tool, not the enemy. I hope that twitter changes from being a broadcast medium for media to one of active participation.

  16. Om – I think you make a great point. Some are heralding Twitter and similar technologies as the end-all, but as always the availability of information is not the entire picture – one has to be able to create a taxonomy with this information that gives it meaning and context. I love doing this. In many ways its what I’m all about. I’m always compiling lists and coordinating information to show its relationships and meaning – informed networker is just one example. Be well!

  17. Om, I was having exactly that thought about the two divergent streams while watching the coverage on two screens yesterday. One is indeed local, raw and fragmented, the other is global, digested, contextual and more linear, though not whole.

    I think the major news media have struggled to get ahead of, or in position around, the raw local stream, instead just acting for the moment as a pass-through with little discrimination as to the usefulness of the content. Passing on citizen journalism w/o a real story structure or context just looks like laziness, opportunism, or an inability to understand its role in relation to mainstream outlets.

    It brings to mind this skit making fun of the BBC’s reliance on citizen reporting and comment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP-rkzJ6yZw . While this isn’t a moment for jokes, this piece does show the absurdity of this kind of indiscriminate leaning on “user content”.

  18. Context is a weird word. Surely Om is right that raw data only confuses. Like the fog of battle. But traditional media “context” is only one step better. It identifies who is on the playing field, and what they are doing. But traditional media is terrible in helping us understand the meta. The big “why is this happening”. THE META is where we are really messed up. So, I think we might need another, better layer of media focused on the meta. Traditional? Non-traditional? Doesn’t matter. More important is whether the meta threads build. I think Larry Lessig does this rather well on his blog. So does Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia. Any other examples?

  19. @Michael,

    The META you talk about is what the magazines should be doing. If you have recently picked up Fortune magazine, you realize how they have done META coverage of the current economic crisis in a manner that none of the outlets on the Web can achieve. Funny how it seems given that Web is a way to give more information using links but in the end we can’t really consume it properly. There is a lot of people who are sounding alarms about the end of media. Maybe it should be “end of media” as we have known for a while. Media needs to adapt to the medium, not the other way around. That in essence had been the problems so far.

  20. One source I’ve made part of my life – whether blogging or not – is http://www.daylife.com. These folks aggregate and distribute news photos from the majors including a paragraph describing what the photographer is capturing.

    Sometimes it can be like searching through contact sheets with too many images. Sometimes they’ve not been able to acquire enough images to communicate the feel of what’s happening.

    But, they know what they’re doing with the immediacy of newspaper stills. At the beginning, I went to their site and searched “Mumbai terrorist attacks”. Now, sadly, you need only “Mumbai”.

  21. The main role Twitter seems to have played in this particular tragedy is to bring together disparate groups of people — friends of visitors from outside India, non-resident Indians, Bombay-ites and others — into a sort of a support group where they could share news stories, mostly emerging from the mainstream media.

    I did find the self-congratulatory nature of posts on blogs and Twitter jarring. There were very very few actual tweets from those who were anywhere near the location. The only halfway useful blog post was the one from Amit Verma, but that was just a chance post — a top blogger in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  22. You’ve buried your lead. This is the most important thing you said in your post.

    “And that’s when I realized that the future of media is being split into two streams: one that consists of raw news that comes like a torrent from sources such as Twitter, mobile messages and photos, the other, from old media. The eyewitness dispatches (and photos) via social media are an adjunct to the more established media — which needs to focus on providing analysis, context, and crucially, intelligence — in real time. And yet it is old media — and their next-generation counterparts, the blogs and other Internet outlets — that will have to adapt to this. Of course, the biggest adaption will need to come from the public, those of us who aren’t there ourselves.”

    You should have developed this idea more.

  23. More data not equal better information.

    Data without context no information.

    Broad context, shootings in Mumbai, little information value.

    Filtering, is not the same as putting Data into context.

    I this is not the time nor place to point this out. Maybe we should talk about this when itis over.
    Sorry.

  24. I wrote a lengthy post about this back in July, when the earthquakes occurred in the U.S, and it was one of a growing list of news items I found via Twitter before anywhere else. (The post is direct linked).

    And to give credit where it’s due, the L.A. Times actually wrote about social media/Twitter and embedded a Twitter search. Meanwhile on this occasion CNN and I think ABC have both made references to Twitter, as did the BBC. There’s definitely a growing recognition of it’s utility as a source of fast responses via mobile from the scene of news.

    I’m hoping that it persuades mainstream news sources to strive harder to go beyond the traditional reporting. And they stop using Twitterfeed etc to autopost to Twitter hours after a story has broken!

  25. Interesting analysis of Mumbai’s twitter storm at: http://tinyurl.com/62w8nk

    “Even if the truest signal was actually coming through Twitter it was so drowned in rumour, personal utterance, revenge and irrelevance as to be incomprehensible. In the flattened world of the Social Web there is clearly no filter on decency or taste.”

    Next step, CNN-appointed or sanctioned twitterers located globally? Fast-track to authoritative eye witness journalism? A necessary filter in a world where everyone has a point of view?

  26. hey om,

    one of my readers pinged me with this article.

    i’ll have to respond to it with a post because the feedback i am getting from my readers (and followers on twitter) has been exactly the opposite. i’ve am surprised by the amount of people who have told me in the last few days that i was “better than CNN”. i have a good idea as to why : twitter allows me to show my readers my thought process and in this case i was trying to find a narrative in the stream of information i was receiving.

    i’ll explain how i do that in a post and why it’s a new READING skill that needs to be developed by most non-digital natives. in the meantime, you may want to follow me on twitter and keep add to your RSS reader my blog 🙂

    Cheers,
    liza

    Liza Sabater, Publisher
    culturekitchen.com

    http://twitter.com/blogdiva

  27. Tweets will also amplify the spread of false rumors, panics, invective and “noise” compared with signal in the future. So many tweets confuse facts with interpretation of facts or repeat conjecture and speculation that become facts through mere repetition.

    The question if the moment is whether there is any demand whatsoever for “journalism” as it is understood.

  28. I’m glad this is not another post that just compares old and new. The split in media got a serious boost with twitter – a collective citizen source, but, i think this immediate ‘channel’ actually started back in 1991, at least in my experience of 1’st gulf war.
    I was also glued to a couple of screens following Mumbai, and i’m thinking TV channels should find ways of including and relating to realtime citizen reporting & mood.
    My lesson from this recent painful overflow is to merge 2 split ends onto 1 screen, Search.Twitter & BBC/CNN.

  29. My favorite way to sort out all the media overflow is tweetdeck.

    You’ve got your searches for your industry set up, you’ve got your groups of people, “VIP” “get to know these people” etc, the cloud of buzz on twitter and of course your @replies and DM’s

    Really cool stuff.

  30. So, what is the business model for journalism now guys? I read that on-line news and comment is not able to compete with the mountain of same coming from bloggers, and indeed from fools like myself, with no known status other than my charm and good looks.
    Will poetry become a power in the land I wonder, and can you sell it!

  31. I have watched a few news stories unfold on twitter now but I never RT or pass them on until I see a reliable news source report the story. Maybe I’m just cynical but I believe news organisations need to be quicker off the mark and people need to be aware that everything published via twitter/blogs etc is not automatically true.

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