Crisis Media Politics Twitter — Snurb, 20 May 2011

Part of our job in the Mapping Online Publics project is also to raise the public profile for what scholarly research into the uses of Twitter and other social media can achieve, of course – so here are a few more pointers to recent coverage of our work.

First, after my keynote at the CeDEM conference in Austria, I was also interviewed (in German) by Ulla Ebner the Austrian radio channel Ö1, to discuss the role of Twitter during the Queensland floods and the impact of WikiLeaks on government and politics. The interview is now online (as audio and transcript) here.

The other big Twitter-related story in recent weeks was the killing of Osama bin Laden, of course – and I had a piece in The Conversation about the role of Twitter in spreading the news (as well as, unwittingly, live-tweeting the raid on bin Laden’s compound as it happened), which was also republished in Technology Spectator. It’s in the nature of these brief opinion pieces that they end up getting edited down further than you’d like, so here’s the full article as I originally wrote it:


When Big News Breaks, the World Turns to… Twitter

Where were you when you heard of Osama bin Laden’s death? Increasingly, the answer to this and similar questions may be ‘I was on Twitter.’ From the ‘inland tsunami’ washing down Queensland’s Lockyer Valley to the Christchurch earthquake, from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to the news of the raid on the bin Laden compound, it’s been a year of ‘CNN moments’ for the microblogging service already – and it’s still only May.

The term ‘CNN moment’ stems from the first US war on Iraq, in 1990, of course: CNN’s immediate and first-hand coverage of the fighting quickly established it as the main news source during that war; in many ways, it popularised the idea of the 24-hour news channel in the first place, and many more such channels followed in its wake (including, in more recent times, Al Jazeera and ABC News 24). Here was a channel with a world-wide network of correspondents, able to scramble its resources within minutes to cover breaking news stories – a pattern we’ve seen repeated over and over again in the coverage of events both tragic and happy, since then.

Today, though, even that rapid response is finding it hard to compete with the still greater immediacy that can be achieved by Twitter and other social networks. As such networks are adopted by users around the world, they start to form a network of potential correspondents which cannot be matched by any professional news organisation. Whatever happens, and wherever it happens, chances are that Twitter users are already on the scene – and that they’re able and willing to report about it. Though unwittingly at the time, even the commando raid on bin Laden’s hideout was live-tweeted by an Abbottabad local, as we now know – and first rumours and confirmed reports about Osama bin Laden’s death also emerged first on Twitter.

What this highlights is a function of Twitter which has been described as ‘ambient journalism’ by Alfred Hermida and Alex Burns in their articles in a recent issue of M/C Journal. Twitter‘s users – and those of Facebook and other similar sites – are constantly updating their followers and the wider world on what’s happening to them, and around them. Sure, most of the time those updates may be of little general interest – but when world events unfold, these ‘random acts of journalism’ (as JD Lasica once called them) effortlessly combine to form a greater whole, a multifaceted picture of the world.

Like individual pixels on a computer screen, their individual tweets join together; like the screen surface itself, Twitter provides a platform through which they can be coordinated and put into context. Twitter users themselves orchestrate part of this crowdsourcing effort by including ‘hashtags’ in their messages – brief keywords, preceded by the hash symbol, such as #osama; this allows other users to follow the stream of updates and comments on specific topics. As news breaks, those hashtags quickly bubble to the top: Twitter turns from ‘ambient journalism’ into a real newsfeed. And additionally, of course, researchers are able to capture and analyse these tweeting activities – as QUT’s Mapping Online Publics project has done for several recent events.

What such analysis also tells us, however, is that for all the justifiable attention placed on the role of social media during such events, rumours of the death of mainstream media are much exaggerated. MSM reports about breaking events remain important sources of news for Twitter users, too, who do much to amplify the reach of such journalistic stories; conversely, though, the global network of Twitter ‘sleeper cells’ who might at any moment share generally newsworthy updates is also becoming an significant newsgathering resource for professional journalists. Especially in areas where journalists can’t go, or haven’t yet had time to go, Twitter has become a key source of local intelligence.

What any discussion of the role of Twitter in reporting the death of Osama bin Laden will highlight, then, is that we’ve moved well past binary oppositions of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, of ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ journalists. The question for journalism, and for us all as users of the news, becomes how we might best connect our established, institutional channels of newsgathering and dissemination with the emerging network of ambient journalistic activities conducted through social media.

About the Author

Dr Axel Bruns leads the QUT Social Media Research Group. He is an ARC Future Fellow and Professor in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Bruns is the author of Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage (2008) and Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production (2005), and a co-editor of Twitter and Society, A Companion to New Media Dynamics and Uses of Blogs (2006). He is a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. His research Website is at snurb.info, and he tweets as @snurb_dot_info.

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