With Twitter, a Desperate Need for Context

70 Comments

All TV news is now glocalIncreasingly, every time there is an unfortunate tragedy — be it a raging fire or a terrorist attack — we geta torrent of stories heralding the legitimacy of Twitter as a news source. Their core arguments are always the same — that social media tools allow for information to be dispatched far faster than the lumbering old media. 

Indeed, Twitter’s simplicity gives virtually anyone the power to send dispatches from the front line. Traditionally, eyewitness reports would first go through an editorial grinder; now they hit the web as soon as the people that type them up hit the proverbial send key. The question, however, then becomes: How does one make sense of the torrent of information that comes with this immediate media? I first wrote about the “immediate media” phenomenon last year:

This immediate media is information simply adapting to the new methods of distribution. At the turn of the last century, [the] telegraph was used to spread the news. Telephone technologies gave newspapers a new sense of urgency and made distant events a weekly, and for some, a daily affair. Radio broadcasts made news more real time, making it part of our daily life. TV brought news into the living room, [and] made it more personal. Cable and the birth of CNN made news a 24/7 phenomenon.

The Internet in its early version upped the tempo, and with the rise of high-speed, always-on connections, information is now an unending stream. If you follow that thread, then [you] can easily see that with each transformation, technology compressed the news cycle a little, and made distribution a bit more efficient. The more we connect, the more we want to know but in less time.

That idea of the future has arrived much faster than we thought, but as we struggle to make sense of all the readily available information, it’s important also to understand how the role of media outlets has changed. Such a need became especially clear to me over the past few days as I watched the ugliness unfold in Mumbai.

 Since Wednesday afternoon I have been glued to my computer screen — actually three of them — watching the CNN-IBN News and NDTV News feeds, MSNBC and Fox News, Wikipedia, and most importantly, Twitter, for updates on the situation in India. (Check out FLickr for getting visuals that show life after the attacks and how the armed forces are taking action on sea.) 

Despite the tremendous volume of information — and its immediacy — coming from Mumbai via Twitter, getting context about the situation has been a struggle. While a few people have been tweeting firsthand accounts, much of the information has been re-tweets or just rambling, reaction-based tweets. Maybe I was overcome with emotion, but the sheer volume of tweets and lack of clarity only fed my frustration with Twitter. (I’m sure it’s the same kind of frustration people feel with blogs at times as well.)

Over the last 12 months, video on the Internet has essentially turned global news into a local broadcast. Yet even with all the news coming at me from the local Indian channels by way of streaming on the web, no one was offering context, analysis or a comprehensive overview of what was unfolding around them. CNN, MSNBC and others didn’t exactly have a grasp of the situation either, and I was left guessing what was actually happening. It wasn’t until The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times offered up their reports that the whole time line and sequence of events started to make sense. It was only then that the sheer ugliness and audacity, the horror and the madness, hit home. 

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.

70 Comments

Lewis B. Sckolnick

Twitter etc. will become stronger once people understand the need for lines of connection.

There can be no divide between classic journalism and what we are making now.

liza

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

Ben

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?

Dan Thornton

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!

ronald

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.

Duncan Kinney

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.

Samir Raiyani

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.

Eideard

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”.

Om Malik

@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.

Michael

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?

Scott Smith

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”.

keith

Some dutch students got praise for trying to synthesize/add context to the tweets as part of the live story: http://www.rethinkingmedia.nl/2008/11/27/shot-through-the-heart/
Twitter creates a wonderful pipeline of information. There is no doubt it has changed the ‘collection’ and ‘distribution’ tasks when it comes to news. That was always a big part of the cost for running a news organization.

David Mackey

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!

Om Malik

@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.

Om Malik

@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.

bloggingmom67

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.

tweetip

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.

Bill

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/]).

sameer

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.

Jennifer Van Grove

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

Mark Evans

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

Dan Thornton

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…

Dan Thornton

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…

Om Malik

@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.

Phil

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.

Dan Thornton

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.

Dan Thornton

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.

Mathew Ingram

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.

Comments are closed.