Joho the Blog » citizen journalism

May 24, 2012

[2b2k][mesh] Andy Carvin

Andy Carvin (@acarvin) is being interviewed by Mathew Ingram at Mesh.

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.]

17 Comments »

August 13, 2011

Reddit and community journalism

I’ve come to love Reddit. What started as a better Digg (and is yet another happy outcome of the remarkable Y Combinator) has turned into a way of sharing and interrogating news. Reddit as it stands is not the future of news. It is, however, a hope for news.

As at other sites, at Reddit readers post items they find interesting. Some come from the media, but many are home-made ideas, photos, drawings, videos, etc. You can vote them up or down, resulting in a list ordered by collective interests. Each is followed by threaded conversations, and those comments are also voted up or down.

It’s not clear why Reddit works so well, but it does. The comments in particular are often fiercely insightful or funny, turning into collective, laugh-out-loud riffs. Perhaps it helps that the ethos — the norm — is that comments are short. Half-tweets. You can go on for paragraphs if you want, but you’re unlikely to be up-voted if you do. The brevity of the individual comments can give them a pithiness that paragraphs would blunt, and the rapid threading of responses can quickly puncture inflated ideas or add unexpected perspectives.

But more relevant to the future of news are the rhetorical structures that Reddit has given names to. They’re no more new than Frequently Asked Questions are, but so what? FAQs have become a major new rhetorical form, of unquestioned value, because they got a name. Likewise TIL, IAMA, and AMA are hardly startling in their novelty, but they are pretty amazing in practice.

TIL = Today I Learned. People post an answer to a question you didn’t know you had, or a fact that counters your intuition. They range from the trivial (“TIL that Gilbert Gottfried has a REAL voice.”) to the opposite of the trivial (“TIL there is a US owned Hydrogen bomb that has been missing off the coast of Georga for over 50 years. “)

IAMA = I Am A. AMA = Ask Me Anything. People offer to answer questions about whatever it is that they are. Sometimes they are famous people, but more often they are people in circumstances we’re curious about: a waiter at an upscale restaurant, a woman with something like Elephant Man’s disease, a miner, or this morning’s: “IAmA guy who just saw the final Harry Potter movie without reading/watching any Harry Potter material beforehand. Being morbidly confused, I made up an entire previous plot for the movie to make sense in my had. I will answer your HP Series question based on the made up previous plot in my head AMA.” The invitation to Ask Me Anything typically unfetters the frankest of questions. It helps that Reddit discourages trolling and amidst the geeky cynicism permits honest statements of admiration and compassion.

The topics of IAMA’s are themselves instructive. Many are jokes: “IAmA person who has finished a whole tube of chapstick without losing it. AMA” But many enable us to ask questions that would falter in the face of conventional propriety: “IAmA woman married to a man with Asperger’s Syndrome AMA”. Some open up for inquiry a perspective that we take for granted or that was too outside our normal range of consideration: “IAMA: I was a German child during WWII that was in the Hitler Youth and had my city bombed by the U.S.”

Reddit also lets readers request an IAMA. For example, someone is asking if one of Michelle Bachman’s foster kids would care to engage. Might be interesting, don’t you think?

So, my hypothesis is that IAMA and AMA are an important type of citizen journalism. Call it “community journalism.”

Now, if you’ve clicked through to any of these IAMA’s, you may be disappointed at the level of “journalism” you’ve seen. For example, look at yesterday’s “IAMA police officer who was working during the London Riots. AMA.” Many of the comments are frivolous or off-topic. Most are responses to other comments, and many threads spin out into back-and-forth riffing that can be pretty damn funny. But it’s not exactly “60 Minutes.” So what? This is one way citizen journalism looks. At its best, it asks questions we all want asked, unearths questions we didn’t know we wanted asked, asks them more forthrightly than most American journalists dare, and gets better — more honest — answers than we hear from the mainstream media.

You can also see in the London police officer’s IAMA one of the main ways Reddit constitutes itself as a community: it binds itself together by common cultural references. The more obscure, the tighter the bond. For example, during the IAMA with the police officer in the London riots, someone asks if they’ve caught the guy who knocked over the trash can. This is an unlinked reference to a posting from a few days before of a spoof video of a middle class guy looking around an empty street and then casually knocking over a garbage can. The comments devolve into some silliness about arresting a sea gull for looting. The police officer threads right in:

[police officer] I do assure you we take it very seriously, however. Here, please have a Victim of Crime pack and a crime reference number. We will look into this issue as a matter of priority, and will send you a telegram in six-to-eight-weeks.
permalinkparent

AmbroseChapel
Telegram? Are you that cop who got transported back to the 1970s?

[police officer]
My friends call me Murphy.

derpedatbirth
Lawl, I’m watching RoboCop right now.

This community is both Reddit’s strength as a site, and its greatest weakness as a form of citizen journalism. Reddit illustrates why there are few quotes that simultaneously delight and scare me more than “If the news is important, it will find me.” This was uttered, according to Jane Buckingham (and reported in a 2008 Brian Stelter NY Times article) by a college student in a focus group. In my view, the quote would be more accurate if it read, “If the news is interesting to my social group, it will find me.” What’s interesting to a community is not enough to make us well informed because our community’s interests tend to be parochial and self-reinforcing. This is not so much a limitation of community as a way that communities constitute themselves.

And here’s where I think Reddit offers some hope.

First, it’s important to remember that Reddit is not intending to cover the news, even though its tag line is “The front page of the Internet.” It feels no responsibility to post and upvote a story simply because it is important. Rather, Reddit is a supplement to the news. If something is sufficiently covered by the mainstream — today the stock market went up dramatically, today the Supreme Court decided something — it exactly will not be covered as news at Reddit. Reddit is for what didn’t make it into the mainstream news. So, Reddit does not answer the question: How will we get news when the main stream dries up?

But it does make manifest a phenomenon that should take some of the gloom off our outlook. Take Reddit as a type of internet tabloid. Mainstream tabloids are sensationalistic: They indulge and enflame what are properly thought of as lower urges. But Reddit feeds and stimulates a curiosity about the world. It turns out that a miner —or a person who works at Subway — has a lot to tell us. It turns out that a steely British cop has a sense of humor. It turns out that American planes dropping bombs on a German city did not fly with halos over them. True, there’s a flood of trivial curios and tidbits at Reddit. Nevertheless, from mainstream tabloids you learn that humans are a weak and corrupt species that revels in the misfortunes of others. From Reddit you learn that we are creatures with a wild curiosity, indiscriminate in its fascinations. And you learn that we are a social species that takes little seriously and enjoys the multiplicity of refractions.

But is the curiosity exhibited at Reddit enough? I find this question rocks back and forth. The Reddit community constitutes itself through a set of references that belong to a particular group and that exclude those who just don’t get nods to Robocop. Yet it is a community that reaches for what is beyond its borders. Not far enough, sure. But it’s never far enough. Reddit’s interests are generally headed in the right direction: outward. Those interests often embrace more than what the mainstream has found room for. Still, the interests of any group are always going to reflect that group’s standpoint and self-filters. Reddit’s curiosity is unsystematic, opportunistic, and indiscriminate. You will not find all the news you need there. That’s why I say Reddit offers not a solution to the impeding News Hole, but a hope. The hope is that while communities are based on shared interests and thus are at least somewhat insular, some communities can generate an outward-bound curiosity that delights in the unabashed exploration of what we have taken for granted and in the discovery of that which is outside its same-old boundaries.

But then there is the inevitability triviality of Reddit. Reddit topics, no matter how serious, engender long arcs of wisecracks and silliness. But this too tells us something, this time about the nature of curiosity. One of the mistakes we’ve made in journalism and education is to insist that curiosity is a serious business. Perhaps not. Perhaps curiosity needs a sense of humor.

35 Comments »

November 12, 2009

Jay Rosen’s 10 Press Commandments/Tweets

Derek Barry blogs Jay Rosen‘s keynote at the Media140 in Sydney. Jay gave his ten commandments (in the form of tweets) for press in the age of the Internet.

(Jay apparently noted my post on transparency and objectivity, which Derek looked at and thought was “ironically anonymous.” I never considered that this blog looks anonymous, since I flog my books, have a disclosure button at the top, and list my twitter handle, but I can see how it would seem that way. I think I’m too shy/neurotic to fix it, though.)

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