Twitter: The first draft of history?

by Mathew on May 12, 2008 · 49 comments

Like many others, I woke up this morning to Twitter messages about a disaster in China: a magnitude 7.8 (at last report) earthquake in the southwest, with thousands of people either dead or injured. Much like the forest fires in California last fall and other recent news events, Twitter became one of the main sources of on-the-ground reporting — even before CNN started picking up what was happening, and with more personal detail. During such times, Twitter seems like a crowd-sourced reporting tool, much like what NowPublic.com has created but with cellphones and 140 character messages as the medium.

In any disaster, one of the first things that people look for — not just journalists, but readers too — is the eyewitness account, the first-person description, the man on the scene. Whenever something like the earthquake happens, thousands of editors and producers at newspapers, radio programs and TV networks clog the phones trying to reach someone, anyone, who can provide a personal account: they call homes, schools, stores, friends, distant relatives. What was it like? Where were you when it happened? What happened next?

Twitter is able to supply all of those things — and it’s also self-directed. People can post messages about whatever they wish, rather than answering only the questions that a producer asks them. In the study I wrote about recently that looked at Twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia as disaster reporting tools, one of the comments about the California fires was that the media focused on celebrities and how they were affected, but Twitter and other sources gave a more complete version of events and how they were affecting everyone. Paul Kedrosky calls it the democratization of headline news.

Obviously, 140-character messages don’t take the place of reported stories that check facts and determine what exactly happened, or pull together various reports into a coherent whole. But they are a compelling part of that story — and journalists who know how to take advantage can produce something much more complete with the help of all those Twitter reporters in the field. Journalism has been called “the first draft of history,” — and now the people putting together that draft have even more help in getting it right the first time. For more sources and info, check out the post at Global Voices Online.

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  • http://www.storyofmylife.com/antje antje wilsch

    Am I the only person who is tired of every “A List” blogger talking about Twitter? Not one person outside my technology bubble has ever even heard of it….. :( The most posts about it, the more I feel it's this exclusive club of cacaphony…. just saying. It's great you guys are all early adopters and maybe it's totally disruptive but to me it's just a time wasting jumble of people talking about their farts or where they are (at the drive in now, listening to the radio, had a thought!)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    There's no question that Twitter users are “edge cases” Antje — but I
    think Twitter is a little more than a time-wasting jumble, or at least
    it can be. I can remember not all that long ago people were saying
    the same things about the Internet.

  • http://oneofakindwis.com Michelle Gartner

    Followed your interview over from Broadcasting Brain. Just this week it seems my eyes are being opened to real applications of Twitter. I see so many A lister bloggers and bloggers higher in the blog food chain writing on Twitter, but haven't gained anything of value from their posts, until now. I can really see how a journalist could use Twitter to an extraordinary advantage- even your post title makes it very clearly. Now the scales have fallen from my eyes and I can see what I thought was a droll little tool (I do use it for blog updating) could be so very useful.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks for the comment, Michelle. I guess like any tool, Twitter is
    what you make of it.

  • http://www.storyofmylife.com/antje antje wilsch

    the internet vs. twitter? :) Hardly on the same planet IMHO. More like facebook vs. Twitter.

    For journalists, I totally see it. Bloggers too. But others…. – most of the stuff that comes through:
    a) is referring to someone to whose twitter account I'm NOT following so I hae no idea what the person is referring to
    b) obscure references to articles i”ve not yet read
    c) too short to often make sense
    d) boring (farts, naps and 'where are you you' posts as stated above)

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2008/05/12/donated-to-red-cross/ Jeremiah Owyang

    Matt

    I agree, there are some powerful positive outputs to this.

    I recently donated to the Red Cross and blogged it, so far, three others have donated, directly or indirectly of my evangelism

    Would you consider updating your post with a link to the redcross, and encouraging your readers to donate? would be great, we can actually make a difference.

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  • http://www.myITforum.com Rod Trent

    Nah…Scoble broke the news. http://myitforum.com/cs2/blogs/rtrent/archive/2

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Yes, he broke the news — which he found out about via Twitter

  • http://ericrice.com Eric Rice

    It would be too stinky if this happened on myspace, because of the social caste of tech. It probably DID happen on myspace, but who is watching? Aren't the tech blogospheres *better* than it? /smirk

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Eric, if you can find me any evidence of something similar happening
    through MySpace, I'd be happy to write about it.

  • http://ericrice.com Eric Rice

    I'm digging, but there are challenges… What percentage of 'reporting' is
    done in Chinese vs. English; what percentage is done on myspace.com vs.
    myspace.cn— is the whole story based the English-speaking side of the
    population?

    But seriously, why am I even bothering? It's too late for it to matter and
    our chamber of echoes is blinded to the digging. Let it run its course so we
    can move onto the next thing.

  • Jessica Barlow

    I am writing a dissertation on the effects of citizen journalism and how online technologies (myspace, facebook, blogger, wordpress and twitter) are affecting the production of online news.

    In response to the issues about myspace not being monitored I recently watched the UK earthquake unfold infront of my eyes.

    On experiencing the earthquake I logged onto google and frantically searched to what was going on, nothing was returned from reuters, bbc or sky news.

    Then bulletins popped up from my myspace friends, with location, epicentre, effects etc etc, with comment following on for about half an hour, until reuters and the mainstream press had broken the news.

    I have later learnt that this was first broken on twitter and not myspace, soes anyone have the link to the twitter that broke the news of the UK earthquake?

    Great blog Mathew.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Jessica. I'd be interested in seeing your dissertation when
    you're done.

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  • http://www.ontherecordpodcast.com/pr/otro/default.aspx Eric Schwartzman

    Mathew,

    Rather than improving the accuracy of the first draft, perhaps the value daily news media brings is analysis and perspective? It seems as though the daily news business has no choice but to forfeit the breaking news cycle to citizen journalism and focus on what they do best: Retrospective, fact checked news produced with editorial oversight and group consensus. But with advertisers defecting MSM for UGM, the questions remains, how do newspapers stay solvent enough to pull it off?

    I'd really like to set up a time to discuss these issues with you for my podcast. How about sometime next week?

    Eric Schwartzman
    DM me @ericschwartzman

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  • http://www.birseyindir.net/ indir

    There's no question that Twitter users are “edge cases” Antje — but I
    think Twitter is a little more than a time-wasting jumble, or at least
    it can be. I can remember not all that long ago people were saying
    the same things about the Internet.

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    Great article, man. Keep up the good work and please do keep sharing.

    Thanks in advance!

    Mike

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    It would be too stinky if this happened on myspace, because of the social caste of tech. Would you consider updating your post with a link to the redcross, and encouraging your readers to donate? would be great, we can actually make a difference.

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  • blaufraustein

    perhaps it is a nice way of reporting – http://www.retrovespa.com

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    Ya I remember that event after which witter got much more famous for mainstream news too. It was the first one the pass off the message I suppose.

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  • myrtlebeachattorney

    Obviously, 140-character messages don’t take the place of reported stories that check facts and determine what exactly happened

  • myrtlebeachattorney

    Obviously, 140-character messages don’t take the place of reported stories that check facts and determine what exactly happened

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