“Just heard a big blast near badi chowpak. Donno what it was.”
Not much of a quote, but it was enough to get the story out. Sandil Srinivasan, or 2s as he is known on the micro-blogging service Twitter, was in Jaipur on 13 May when the first of a series of nine synchronized bombs exploded in the capital city of the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. A few seconds after he heard the blast he sent the message above from his mobile phone to Twitter. Twitter limits messages to 140 characters, and sends them to the Internet, mobile phone or instant messenger. Crucially, ‘twitterers’ can make their ‘tweets’ public and they are searchable by keyword and location.
Since the launch of Twitter there has been an enormous growth in the number of tools to support the service. One of the key tools for journalists is Tweetscan which allows anyone to search Twitter messages for keywords e.g. bomb, Jaipur, blast, India. BBC journalist Robin Hamman quickly located Sandil in Jaipur well before any mainstream media outlet had a reporter on the ground.
“Within a couple of minutes of the first of several bomb explosions in Jaipur, Tweetscan helped me find an eyewitness who was tweeting as he searched for his mother and dodged bombs exploding as close as 20 feet away,” says Robin. “The immediacy and intimacy of the content one can find on Twitter is extremely powerful. Sometimes it’s almost like being there.”
But, how do you verify a tweet?
“One problem with all this stuff, however, is that verification is often difficult if not impossible,” adds Robin. “When it comes to Twitter, a service called Twitterlocal can come in useful for cross checking a user’s location with the content of their tweets but it’s easy enough for a user who really wants to pull a con to simply alter their location.”
Similar technologies are having an impact in other parts of the world. Good mobile phone networks exist in much of Africa and in Nigeria and Ghana mobile phone users helped monitor the 2007 presidential elections with a service called FrontlineSMS. This allows users to send a text message to large groups of people and it does not require a Internet connection. However, unlike Twitter messages, these are not automatically published on the Internet.
Twitter helped student James Karl Buck get out of an Egyptian jail. He was in Cairo during the April food price riots when he was arrested. On the way to the police station, Buck sent a message to his friends and contacts. The message consisted of one word. “Arrested”. It was enough to set the wheels in motion to ensure his release to following day.
For the most part Twitter is currently used to describe mundane aspects of life, “Going out for a walk”, “Having a cup of coffee” etc. However, some journalists are beginning to experiment with it in other ways. At the Wichita Eagle newspaper, court reporter Ron Sylvester used Twitter to update a dedicated newspaper web page live and direct from the courtroom of an ongoing trial. As Canadian journalism teacher Mark Hamilton points out on his blog,
“Twitter makes even more sense than something like Court TV because we donâ€™t get it all, we get the important bits, and an anecdote or two and a little colour, strained through the mind of a journalist. No boring bits.”
While Twitter has its uses, it is no news panacea. Kaiser Kuo of the Digital Watch blog was in China at the time the earthquake struck Sichuan province in May,
“Twitterâ€™s immediacy was nice, but by no means unique. The whole time I was twittering, my wife was on her instant messengers, with both QQ and MSN Live [Instant messenger tools] open. She was also monitoring all the portalsâ€™ news flashes on the quake. I didnâ€™t feel like I had any more information than she did. Twitterâ€™s public nature was of some real value both for ordinary folk and for professional journalists, who were able to quickly identify English-speakers on the scene who could be interviewed. The broadcast nature of Twitter… was… something that made it better than simple IM.”
According to Twitterlocal statistics, Twitter is most popular in Japan, followed by the US and Britain. However, the service is still very niche. As of March, the popular technology blog TechCrunch estimated there were over one million Twitter users, 200,000 “active users” per week publishing a total of three million tweets per day. The fact that 10 Downing Street also started using Twitter in March, could signify the service is on the way to mass mainstream adoption. And for journalists seeking sources, that can only be a good thing.
This a “blogified” version of a piece I wrote for the Frontline Club magazine this month. And… just in case. Here’s our Twitter feed.