NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
He’s cut back to hundreds of tweets now, rather than the 1,400 he did at the height of the Arab Spring. He says Twitter shut him down for a bit on Feb. 2 on the day of the Battle of the Camel in Egypt because his volume was so high that he looked like a spammer. He contacted Twitter and they turned him back on in 15 minutes.
He went to NPR at 2006 as “senior strategist,” an intentionally vague title. He says his real role is Guinea Pig in Residence. He gets to tinker with tools and methodologies. In Dec. 2010 he began to see tweets from Tunisia from people he knew, about the protest self-immolation of a street vendor. He had a loose network of bloggers he knew over the years, in part from participating in Global Voices. “When something important happens, the network comes back to life.” He had an intuition that the protests might expand into a genuine revolution. None of the mainstream media were covering it. [PS: Here’s a very cool and useful interactive timeline of Arab Spring, from The Guardian.]
Mathew: The role of social media? Andy: Each country has been very different. “I don’t call this the Twitter Revolution or a Social Media Revolution, because I couldn’t then look in the eye of someone who lost a family member” engaged in the protests. Facebook was a way to get word out to lots of people. A researcher recently has said that simple information exchange at a place like Facebook was a public act, broadcasting to people, a declaration, helping to nudge the revolution forward. “Because it was not anonymous,” notes Andy.
Expats curated news and footage and spread it. “In the last couple of days of the Tunisian revolution, people were using Facebook and Twitter to identify sniper nests.” People would say don’t go to a particular intersection because of the snipers. It spread from country to country. He says that Libyans were tweeting about the day the revolution should begin. “It was literally like they were using Outlook appointments.”
How did he curate the twitterers? He kept lists in each country. It’s probably about 500 people. But a total of about 2,000 people are in a loose network of folks who will respond to his questions and requests (e.g., for translations).
Mathew: You weren’t just retweeting. Andy: Yes. I didn’t know anyone in Libya. I didn’t know who to trust. I started asking around if anyone knows Libyan expats. I picked up the phone/skype. I got leads. At the beginning I was following maybe 10 people. And then it scaled up. When the videos came out the mainstream media wouldn’t run them because they weren’t sure they were from Libya. But Andy tweeted them, noting that there’s uncertainty, and asking for help. A Libyan would tweet back that they recognize the east Libyan accent, or someone recognized a Libyan court house which Google images then confirmed.
Mathew: Were you inherently skeptical? Andy: I was inherently curious. I compiled source lists, seeing who’s following people I trusted, seeing how many followers and how long they’ve tweeted, and how they are talking to one another. Eventually I’d see that some are married, or are related. Their relationships made it more likely they were real.
Mathew: You were posting faster than news media do. They do more verification. Andy: Which is why I get uncomfortable when people prefer my twitter feed as a newswire. It’s not a newswire. It’s a newsroom. It’s where I’m trying to separate fact from fiction, interacting with people. That’s a newsroom.
Mathew: You were doing what I was talking with David W [that’s me!] about: using a network of knowledge. Andy: A NYT reporter tweeted that he was trying to figure out what a piece of ordinance was. Andy tweeted it and one of his followers identified it precisely. It took 45 mins. The guy who figured it out was a 15 year old kid in Georgia who likes watching the Military channel.
Sometimes Andy gives his followers exercises. E.g., his followers picked apart a photo that was clearly photoshopped. What else did they find in it? They found all sorts of errors, including that the president of Yemen had two ears on one side. It becomes an ad hoc world wide social experiment in Internet literacy. It’s network journalism, collaborative journalism, process journalism. Andy says he doesn’t like the term “curator,” but there are times when that’s what he’s doing. There are other times when he’s focused on realtime verification. He likes the term “dj” better. He’s getting samples from all over, and his challenge is to “spin it out there in a way that makes people want to dance.”
[It opens up to audience questions]
Q: Are people more comfortable talking to you as a foreign journalist?
Yes. Early on, people vouched for me. But once I hit my stride, people knew me before their revolution began and I’d be in touch with them. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Q: How should journalists use Twitter?
They have to carve out time to do it. It helps to be ADHD. And when you’re on Twitter, you are who you are. When I’m on Twitter, I’m the guy who has a family and works in his yard. And you have to be prepared to be accountable in real time. When I screw up, my followers tell me. E.g., in Libya there was a video of an injured girl being prepared for surgery. I wrote that and tweeted it. Within 30 seconds a number of people tweeted back to me that she was dead and was being prepared for burial. Andy retweeted what he had been told.
Q [me]: How do we scale you so that there are more of you? And tweeting 1400 times a day isn’t sustainable, so is there a way to scale in that direction as well?
Andy: Every time I felt “Poor me” I remembered that I was sitting on a nice NPR roof deck, tweeting. And when I go home, at 6pm I am offline. I fix dinner, I give the kids a bath, I read to them. If it’s a busy time, I’ll go back online for an hour.
He would tweet when he went offline for bits during Arab Spring, and would explain why, in part so people would understand that he’s not in the Middle East and not in danger.
About scaling: A lot of what I do is teachable. The divide between those in journalism who use social media and those who don’t is about how comfortable they are being transparent. Also, if you’re responsible for a beat, it’s understandable why you haven’t tried it. Editors should think about giving journalists 20% time to cultivate their sources online, building their network, etc. You get it into people’s job descriptions. You figure it out.
Q: [mathew] On the busy days, you needed someone to curate you.
That began to happen when I brought on a well-known Saudi Blogger [couldn’t get his name]. He was curating user-generated content from Syria. He was curating me, but his sources were better than mine, so I began retweeting him.
Q: How do you address the potential for traumatic stress, which you can suffer from even if you’re not in the field?
Andy: In Feb. I learned the term “vicarious PTSD.” The signs were beginning. The first videos from Libya and Bahrain were very graphic. But I have a strong support network on line and with my family. I feel it’s important to talk about this on Twitter. If I see a video of a dead child, I’ll vent about, sometimes in ways that as a journalist are not appropriate, but are appropriate as a human. If I ever become like a TV detective who can look at a body on the ground and crack jokes, then I shouldn’t be in this business.
Andy: I do retweet disturbing stuff. The old media were brought into homes, families. So they had to be child-friendly. But with social media, the readers has to decide to be on Twitter and then to follow me. I’ll sometimes retweet something and say that people shouldn’t open it, but it needs to be out there. There have been some videos I haven’t shared: sexual assaults, executions, things involving kids. I draw the line.
[Loved it loved it loved it. Andy perfectly modeled a committed journalist who remains personal, situated, transparent, and himself.]