Twitter: Public menace or global threat?

27 Apr

 When pundits examine the merits of twitter, the line of argument is generally framed from the perspective that nothing worthwhile can be captured in 140 characters or less.  There have even been studies (now largely debunked) that have asserted that twittering makes us dumber by changing the way our brain works.  Many of these arguments are baseless and spurious but there are some valid questions to ask about twitter’s role helping us understand word events and specifically breaking news.
 What is twitter’s impact, for instance, in times of a pandemic threat?  When I read the first reports of swine flu I did what many people did and posted it on twitter.  Within a very short period of time, ‘swine flu’ was one of the most popular terms on the service.   This was the topic of conversation in the global village.  The idea of the global village was coined by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960’s.  He also warned that this place could become dangerous if we don’t understand it.  He cautioned us about the possibility that we could

“…move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.  … Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.”

 This sentiment was re-iterated In a piece written in Foreign Policy today.  Evgeny Morozov, says, 

“…despite all the recent Twitter-enthusiasm about this platform’s unique power to alert millions of people in decentralized and previously unavailable ways, there are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter’s role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu. ”

In many ways, twitter is the realization of McLuhan’s vision of the global village.  It is the real-time web.  In fact it is more real-time than Google because it captures and publishes conversations instantly.   Google takes minutes or even hours to index remote content.  Twitter is a far more powerful tool in monitoring live events than either google or news sites – so long as it is correct and intelligible.  But keeping up with the global conversation is getting harder and harder to do.  Twitter is currently facing the same problem that  Youtube has been dealing with for some time.  Youtube gets over 13 hours of video every minute.   With this kind of volume, Youtube would need over 700 people to be simultaneously monitoring uploads to keep up with submissions.  Therefore, It is not feasible for any site that is successful in attracting large quantities of user generated content to police the the material.   So what is the solution? 
 One answer is to crowd-source and democratize the organization of this information.  By tracking the popularity, citation and general approval from the community, we can help detect signal in the noise.  Initially at NowPublic we expected that the body of citizen news to resemble something like journalism and take the form of stories.  In the last 2 years it has become clear to us that news and the real-time web are best understood not as journalistic products but as elements within a conversation.  Twitter is perhaps the clearest example of this.  People have always talked.  Now we can hear them.  To be afraid of twitter is to fear conversation.   Twitter has just brought this chatter to the surface.  So, as in any conversation, there is an opportunity to listen, learn and if necessary correct misperceptions.  In some ways this is the oldest style of investigation.   Discovering truth through dialogue was practiced by Soctrates 2500 years ago.  Twitter is a short form of the dialectic, or Socratic form of inquiry. 
 For some time now we have been mining Twitter and the microblogoshere for intelligence.  Generally speaking the results demonstrate the wisdom of crowds.  For instance, the most popular links posted on Twitter pertaining to ‘swine flu’ were links to the CDC podcasts, google map applications to track its progress, articles calling for calm and a number of extremely well informed, and useful sites. 
 So with the right tools we can make sense of the global village and reduce the threat of a twitter induced panic.  With good technology and the involvement of an informed set of conversationalists we can use the vast electronic brain we have built to manage unfolding events and not be overtaken by panic or pandemic.  So let’s talk.

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