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Twitter and the news cycle, perfect together

It’s nice to be listened to. I guess. Maybe. Though I now find myself wondering whether I wouldn’t be better off shutting up.

I saw the first reports of Michael Jackson’s death on Twitter around 6pm. I ran a little script I threw together some weeks ago called “twitcent” to see just how many tweets would share the news. Twitcent takes advantage of the fact that Twitter gives a unique, sequential ID to each tweet to estimate the intensity of posting around certain terms. It retrieves a page of 100 search results for a particular search term – say “Michael Jackson” – and looks at the ID numbers of the first and last tweets listed. Take the difference of those numbers, and you get how many tweets were posted between search result #1 and #100. Divide, and you’ve got a percentage of tweets on the system in a discrete, small interval mentioning the term.

Is it accurate? I dunno. If my assumptions are right, it should be – if Twitter’s not always numbering sequentially, or if some large percent of tweets on the system are unsearchable, less so. Anyway, I ran several search terms through the engine and saw something I’d never seen before – search terms registering in double digit percentages, and the term “Michael Jackson” appearing in 13 – 20% of the tweets.

So I tweeted the following: “My twitter search script sees roughly 15% of all posts on Twitter mentioning Michael Jackson. Never saw Iran or swine flu reach over 5%” And then I went to make dinner.

When I got back online this evening, the tweet had been quoted in Wired News, the New York Times Bits blog, Washington Post’s mocoNews, and in the San Jose Mercury News.

Geez, think these guys read each other much? I’m flattered, I think. But worried that I’m now going to be quoted for the next several days as an “expert” on Michael Jackson twittering, especially as the NYTimes piece identifies me as a Berkman Center researcher.

Of course, by the time I’d gotten back online, the initial fervor had died down – here’s what my script turns up now:

2.152 % Michael Jackson
2.634 % jackson
2.242 % michael
0.312 % micheal
1.596 % MJ
0.119 % #MichaelJackson

That’s a lot of tweets, but now in the neighborhood of a busy swineflu day or the heart of Twitter’s interest in the Iran protests. What was interesting to me was the way the information flashed across Twitter, briefly bringing on the failwhale for some users – with one in seven or so tweets mentioning the death, it’s interesting to wonder whether people saw themselves as spreading the news, or as simply expressing shock, surprise, or their personal reaction. (And yes, I tweeted an update that the term was now down to roughly 3%. That one hasn’t gotten retweeted…)

What’s really interesting to me is the extent to which news reporters seem to have chosen Twitter as the go-to source for reactions to news events. It makes sense – there’s a premium in the news business on speed, on having a story faster than anyone else does, so the need for the quick quote makes Google hours to slow to help you. And the 140 character limit guarantees that whoever you quote will be pithy and limited to a single soundbite.

This, in turn, also increases the chance that you’ll be wrong. A proper quote from me would probably have been something like: “The search string ‘Michael Jackson’ is getting intense interest on Twitter at the moment, showing up in between 13-20% of tweets. It’s unlikely this level of intensity will continue through the night, but at the moment, it exceeds the intensity I’ve seen on Twitter during slower-breaking stories like #swineflu, #pman and #IranElection.” That, unfortunately, is 337 characters – far too long for anyone to read anymore. And a clarification in the form of a blogpost? That’s so 2006.

11 thoughts on “Twitter and the news cycle, perfect together”

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  2. Ethan, I heard a presentation yesterday that I believe sheds some light on this — the presenter, a former high-up journalist now turned professor of new media journalism –stressed repeatedly how the depletion of the numbers of reporters has cut into past practice. Where in the past reporters defined the stories they wished to write about and then went looking for info, they now have to figure out ways to fill blank space with the materials available to them, mostly in the office (or, as your anecdotes confirm, by telephone, but that appears to follow first discovery elsewhere, as fron blogs or whatever). Most of the advice this journalist/professor offered was on “monitoring”, using tools like Spy and Addictomatic and YahooPipes to “surf the buzz.”
    There are a lot of others issues floating around under this transformation (what news is, the press as an institution, the press as a commercial entity, diminishing user demand for “news,” information economy vs attention economy, etc).
    A final word from the presentation — she argues that most “news” now, in the older-fashioned sense of the word –is hyper-local, a point you also approached in your discussion of your local newspaper.

  3. I saw your tweet about the 15% and was very curious about your script. :)

    The uncertain part in my mind is the sequential IDs–there’s been a lot of speculation around how Twitter increments their ID #s. Here’s one of the better posts I’ve seen about it: http://www.dailyblogtips.com/how-many-users-does-twitter-have/

    The hypothesis is that Twitter has at various times incremented by 1 and by 10. I’m not sure how this would affect your results, but something to consider.

  4. Matt, that post postulates a gap between assigned Twitter IDs, but not between the IDs of tweets. If there is a gap between the IDs of tweets, it certainly would affect my script… though a gap of 10 would mean that, for a brief while yesterday, 150% of all tweets were about MJ… :-)

  5. Ethan:

    I’ll out myself as the journalist at the Mercury News who saw your tweet reference above and passed it along to folks pulling together our coverage. This is an interesting response, and I think you raise several important ideas here.

    As I was working on something else yesterday, I was struck by the flood of people who immediately reached for Twitter or Facebook to begin discussing, sharing and then mourning the news about MJ. It was interesting to see the news unfold in real time as people tried to figure out what had really happened, whether it was a joke, and when it had finally been confirmed. And I watched as Twitter’s trends became overwhelmed with MJ-related terms.

    During all this, I saw your tweet. And because I know you a little, and recognize you as someone who tends to know what they’re talking about, I passed it along to a colleague. I’m not sure how the other news orgs came across it, whether they follow you, or whether they saw it on our sight. But in any case, it’s worth remembering that from the audience perspective, most of our readers only read the Mercury News. So it doesn’t matter to them that it appeared in several different places at the same time.

    I’ve been using Twitter for about 18 months now, and as you suggested, I’ve long found it to be incredibly useful in getting a general sense of what folks are talking about. Rather than compare to Google, which I never would have used in such a way, I’d compare it to Facebook, which has been evolving to become more realtime. I was watching both yesterday, and Facebook’s recent changes have made it more useful for monitoring conversational streams (though still not to the same degree as Twitter).

    As our resources have diminished in the newsroom, we’ve tried to think about ways to build or harness networks to help us extend our reach in different ways. Some of those have worked, and some have not. In the old says, (say, way back in the 90s), they would have sent me to the mall to get some “man on the street quotes” from regular folks. Now those folks are congregating in a different public arena, Twitter, and so we can get similar reaction there in greater volume and faster.

    But then what? Should we have called you to see if your tweet was accurate? Ideally, yes. Should we run a correction? I’m not sure. I do think that in our diminished capacity, one valuable role we can still play for many readers is to filter such streams, help find the best or most interesting thoughts or tweets.

    Of course, the other important thing we have to keep in mind is how unrepresentative most of these tools are and not draw broad conclusions about how large groups think or feel based on what I see on Twitter or Facebook.

    In any case, enjoy your role as Berkman’s new Michael Jackson Fellow. Don’t let fame change you.

  6. Thanks for weighing in, Chris, and for “outing” yourself. It’s useful to hear your comments about a changing newsroom and the way you and colleagues are using social media to follow stories, much in line with Charles’s post above.

    What’s awkward for me is figuring out where something I write might appear later. For a while, I could use my blog as a scratchpad for ideas with a pretty good expectation that journalists would call me to talk about the ideas, not just grab quotes for stories. That changed a while ago, and I now write more carefully, and less often, on the blog. I’d thought of Twitter turning into that scratchpad, and was unsettled to see a tweet spread that quickly, widely and apparently authoritatively, especially since it wasn’t true about an hour after it was posted.

    I don’t know that you and colleagues should be doing anything differently, but I think the shift in what media is and isn’t citeable is going to change how some of us talk online. That said, I’m not sure what spaces become unquoteable. If I’d posted the note on Facebook, would it have been citeable in the same way?

    Like I said, I don’t have the answers, nor do I have any real objections. It’s just weird when you notice the ground shifting…

    I was going to offer you a share of any future earnings I make as Berkman’s Michael Jackson Fellow. Unfortunately, based on your comment, we’re already being sued by his estate. I’ll send the bill for the Merc’s share.

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