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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