The New Newswire: a Dutch Student Called Michael

Twitter is now a news service in its own right. ReadWrite Web, an excellent website dedicated to Web 2.0 stuff, points out that the recent earthquake in England–not that unusual in itself, apparently, but rarely actually strong enough to be felt by humans—was reported first by Twitterers and by a Twitter-only news service called BreakingNewsOn (www.twitter.com/BreakingNewsOn): 

This story broke over Twitter in the past half hour, and nothing is up yet on the BBC sites, the Guardian, or the Telegraph. This story is breaking live on Twitter.

Looking at the situation a few hours later, it’s certainly true that mainstream websites have been a bit slow with the story. From what I can gather, the timeline is something like this (all times are in GMT):

Quake hits south of Grimsby 00:56  
First tweets 00:57  
BreakingNewsOn 00:59 (“Unconfirmed reports of earthquake in London”)
BreakingNewsOn 01:01 (“Reports of earthquake, working to confirm”, followed by lots of tweets)
BreakingNewsOn 01:10 (confirmation from European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre)
Dow Jones Newswires 01:29 (quotes BBC report)
Associated Press 01:30 (garbled alert)
Reuters 01:36 (“Quake shakes Britain, no casualties reported”)
AFP 01:45 (“Moderate quake shakes Britain”)
BBC twitter feed 01:56 (“Tremors felt across England”)

There may be some holes in here: I don’t have the exact time when the BBC website first carried the story, but I’m guessing it’s a few minutes before the wires. And this is not the first BreakingNewsOn has been ahead: It was, according to some reports, first on the Benazir Bhutto assassination, although I’ve not been able to confirm that. 

So who or what is BreakingNewsOn, and how does it scoop the big guys on their own turf? The service is actually pretty much one guy, a 20-year old Dutch student called Michael van Poppel, according to this interview by Shashi Bellamkonda. He is a news junkie, and makes money from it too, doing something called web-trawling—searching the net for stuff he can sell to the big players. (He was the guy who last September dug up a videotape of Osama bin Laden, which he then sold to Reuters.) 

Van Poppel works with a couple of other people and is clearly experienced and voracious in hoovering up web content. But it’s also about citizen journalism, crowd sourcing, whatever you want to call it: in the case of the UK quake, the first alerts actually came from witnesses, who twittered about the jolts they felt; it was BreakingNewsOn’s skill in harvesting that information, and staying sufficiently close to its readers for them to think to share their experience, that led to the fast turnaround. 

Of course, there’s much about this that is new. Everyone is now a reporter, if they find themselves in the middle of news. And everyone can be a media publisher: In this case it’s one 20-year old student with a twitter feed and an Internet-connected computer. And, finally, everyone can now subscribe to that once holiest-of-holies: a newswire service that updates in real time. Only now it’s not called a Reuters terminal or a Bloomberg but Twitter. 

But behind that, not much has changed. I’ve covered a few quakes in my time, and it’s all about finding the stuff out quickly by getting it out quickly. Nothing much has changed. No one was injured or killed, and it sounds like there was no falling masonry or damage to buildings. But that’s no excuse: earthquakes are news, and especially if they’re the strongest in the country for more than two decades

Twitter is perfectly suited for breaking news, because it’s all about short pithy sentences and updates. As ReadWrite Web points out, during the California wildfires last year, Twitter and other citizen journalism tools were used by people on the ground, scooping the mainstream press. And all this offers some lessons for the mainstream press that it would be wise to absorb: 

  • Mainstream media cannot afford to be slow off the mark on stories like this, since their value to high-paying subscribers is intimately tied to their speed;
  • Alert streams are no longer the province of market traders;
  • Traditional media needs to find a way to work with these new sources of news, or else find a way to add value that such services cannot. In this case it could have been finding a way to reflect in the headlines the unusual nature of this event;
  • Traditional media has to both monitor these new sources of news–the tweets from ordinary folk surprised to be shaken awake by a tremor—and work with them to ensure that they, too, benefit.

Some might say that what van Poppel does isn’t news. I’d contest that. He did everything right in reporting the story: it’s big enough an event to merit an “unconfirmed” snap, a quick follow-up which contains what we old newshounds would call an advisory letting subscribers know what he’s doing and to expect more. When he got confirmation he put out, all within 10 minutes. That’s a time-tested, old-fashioned and reasonable news approach. He leveraged the new media, but he showed an understanding of news values and what his readers needed. 

Kudos to him. We all could learn a lesson.

(An extended version of this post is available for publication to newsprint media as part of the Loose Wire Service. More details here, or email Jeremy Wagstaff directly.)

The Rise and Fall of Blogging, Twitter and Facebook

A lot of people ask me whether they should blog. Usually I give them the stock answer: blog because you’ve got something to say, because you feel you’ve got to write, and because you want to connect to other people on the same subject. But now I think I’d add another suggestion: don’t bother.

Here, in a nutshell is a history of blogging: a few years back someone invented the idea of software that would make it really easy to add text and links to a website. It could also add them atop the existing material, so the fresh, new stuff was on top, not the bottom. Blogging was born.

Geeks were of course the first bloggers, and while political blogging is now hugely influential, it’s geeks who have led the pack, adding innovations like voice, video, and mobile blogging (where you can blog from lots of different devices, like phones.) Geeks define the way blogging is going outside political blogging, for the simple reason that geek blogging tends to branch out into other subjects, whereas political blogging is mainly political (more like pamphleteering, I’d say.)

Which is why blogging is now changing. In the past year it’s started to morph into something else. There’s been a rise in something called microblogging (sometimes called tumblelogs), where services allow you and me to post and share little snippets of information about ourselves, whether it’s what we’re doing, thinking, reading or listening to, where we are or who we’re talking to. The best known of these is Twitter, but there are others: Jaiku, Pownce, for example.

These microblogs may not look much like blogs – they’re just streams of 150-character consciousness, from the mundane to the slightly less mundane, to which other users subscribe — but for a lot of people they perform the same function: link them into a broader social network where they can both broadcast their doings and find out what others are doing too. As we in Asia found with SMS, North America has found that an enforced limit on the number of letters you can use in a message is a blessing, not a curse.

Twitter et al have not been for everybody. But as with most technology, its usage has evolved into a new medium. Technology rarely replaces another in direct succession, but creates a new category of its own, as users make it their own (or reject it.) Old technologies might fall by the wayside, but rarely because another technology replaced it overnight.)

So with Twitter. Twitter did lots of things, but probably its most lasting impact was to push blogging away from writing and more into connecting. Most people read blogs because they wanted to feel connected to other people by reading what they were thinking. But it’s time consuming, and as blogs proliferated, and as blog posts tended to get longer, readers had less and less time to read these things. Twitter made a perfect alternative: a palatable buffet of updates, without the indigestion that comes from having to read blogs.

The next step in this process (and all this is happening within the space of a few months) has been the rise of Facebook. Facebook started out as U.S. college yearbook type application in 2005, but last year opened up to all users of he Internet. In the past couple of months I’ve noticed a big jump in the number of new users, at least in my little neck of the woods.

What’s interesting about this is that Facebook, among many of its features, focuses again on what I would pompously call the “networked awareness” aspect of blogging and twittering. The most important part of Facebook is becoming someone else’s friend, which then allows you to see what the other person is saying (whether in their blog, or in a one line ‘status message’ on their homepage.) There’s nothing new about this — the music-oriented MySpace does it, the business-oriented LinkedIn does it – but Facebook revolves around the something we all have in common: a past.

In other words, we build our Facebook address book around people we used to work with, people we went to school with, people who are already in our other address books. Enter your previous jobs and schools and you can easily find familiar faces and names, and add them to your buddy list. As I’m sure you have found, it’s much easier to connect with someone you already know than someone you don’t.

Not that Facebook is a sort of gallery of the past — it also allows you to connect to people via shared interests, or shared friends, or people you worked with but didn’t know at the time. All of the communication involved in this can be done publicly or privately, and can be done individually or as part of a group. Facebook occupies a middle ground between MySpace and LinkedIn because it’s restrained in design (something that could not be said for most MySpace pages) and because it’s not too businessy, which is what LinkedIn is all about.

So Facebook finds itself sharing part of a wave with Twitter, which in turn shared part of a wave with blogging. In a year we’ve found ourselves moving on from simply blogging to make ourselves heard, to building Facebook pages to reach out to those we’d like to connect to more closely. I’m not a huge fan of Facebook but it does connect me to way more interesting people (and long lost friends) than blogging ever did.

So is blogging dead? Some bloggers like Shel Israel, who co-wrote blogging’s defining book “Naked Conversations“ have noticed a fall in readers in recent months, and his comments have quickly led to another blogging “meme” (an idea that spreads, which is what blogging does well). The truth is that more people are blogging, more people competing for attention (leading to a terrible rise in Shameless Self Promotion, where instead of commenting on other posts in the space provided, a lot of folk simply try to point readers to their own sites.) Blogging long ago reached critical mass: Now it’s reached saturation point, and something has to (to mix a metaphor) give.

So expect things to evolve further. I’m not saying there aren’t some great blogs out there — blogs aren’t just about social networks, they’re also about great writing, and about information, both of which blogs also do very well. But blogs will continue to branch off into new areas as our needs, and the devices we use, evolve.

Blogging in short, never dies: It’s just the start of a road that goes we know not where. So if you’re thinking of blogging, ask yourself why you want to do it, and whether you might not be better off twittering, powncing, jaikuing or facebooking. Or waiting until the next Big Thing. It shouldn’t be long.

Directory of Lifestreaming

I probably should lump all these into the Directory of Attention, but I’m not going to.

Don’t look for a definition of lifestreams on Wikipedia, because it will take you to a Final Fantasy VII page. The term actually goes back to at least 1997, when Eric Freeman and David Gelernter saw it “as a network-centric replacement for the desktop metaphor. As their project page (last updated in 2000) at Yale put it:

A lifestream is a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream.

They in turn say they got it from David Gelernter’s “chronicle streams.” Web 2.0 has picked up the ball and run with it, redefining it on the way. As Mark Krynsky, creator of the Lifestreamblog points out, the lifestream is now called lots of different things:

The blog defines the lifestream thus: “In its simplest form it’s a chronological aggregated view of your online activities.” I wouldn’t quarrel with that, although of course it’s no longer purely about online activities. Indeed, Jaiku and Twitter have made it easy, indeed desirable, to add more data to your stream than just the when, including

  • where (location via Bluetooth, WiFi, GPS)
  • how (how updating: via SMS? GPS? web?)
  • what (you’re feeling/ doing/ eating/ listening to/ watching/ using/ reading/ browsing/ writing/ photographing/ commenting on)
  • with (other people, things, animals, tools/equipment)
  • while (listening to music etc)

Tools to build lifestreams: There’s a great list here, again, from the excellent lifestreamblog. Basically they can be divided into the meta data that is added without your input and that which you consciously enter (upload photos, adding data, commentary via Twitter etc).

To those I’d add a few more:

Needless to say, the only services that survive will be those that

  • can easily import and export all kinds of streams
  • add a little something more than just gathering together streams
  • work on all platforms, at the computer and away from it

More suggestions etc welcome.

Twitters: Poetry or Drivel? Part II

Nick Carr’s interesting take on Twitters: does their brevity make them meaningful or just another channel of crap? Three quick points:

+ Twitters, like blogs, run the gamut from poetry to drivel
+ One person’s drivel is another person’s poetry: It usually depends on whether you know them or not
+ This has more to do with America’s late awakening to the cultural shifts of SMS which the rest of us got used to more than five years ago.

clipped from www.roughtype.com

James Governor has posted two love notes to Twitter over the last couple of days. In the latest, he argues that Twitter’s 140-character limit promotes brevity. He says that the suggestion that you can’t be “either deep or meaningful” in 140 characters or fewer is nonsense – it’s “evidence of the verbosity of our culture.”

Software’s Opportunity Cost

I’ve never seen this properly studied, and only rarely taken into account by software developers: the opportunity cost of committing to one service or program over another. In a word: Why is it software that’s in charge, not the data itself?

An obvious one is Twitter vs Jaiku. Which one to embrace? Jaiku actually has more features in a way than Twitter, but more people are on Twitter. And, perversely, because one of Jaiku’s features is being able to easily include your Twitter stream into Jaiku, it makes more sense to stick with Twitter as your main presence/communication service, since those updates will automatically feed into Jaiku. Jaiku loses out because it’s better.

But usually it’s a starker choice: choose one program or service over another, and you’ll find it harder and harder to reverse engines and try another. I’ve had two versions of this blog going, one on TypePad and one on WordPress, because I can’t decide which is the better service. It’s a lousy solution and often ends up confusing people and diluting the conversation. I haven’t committed to either yet, a makeshift solution made easier by tools like BlogJet, which allow me to post to both blogs, and the import/export tools that both blogging services provide. But it’s still a dumb compromise.

Worse is the commitment one makes to software. I love PersonalBrain, but I also love mindmapping tools like Freemind. And outliners like MyInfo. I also want to explore stuff like Topicscape. ConnectedText has potential too. But because I want to use them in the real world, with a real project, I don’t want to find that by committing to one I’m foregoing using the others. But that’s inevitable. There are import and export tools available to make it easier for these kinds of about turns (or occasionally starting out in one simple program and then moving the data to something heftier when the data gets too big).

But surely there’s a better way of doing this — by making data so open that we can easily move it between programs without these hurdles? Instead of the programs being the dominant tool, they become servant to the data? A case in point: I want to look through all the blog postings I’ve written in the past five years. I want them somewhere I can see them, but also some way I can index them, and view them in different ways. I want to be able throw them at a Bayesian filter to look at the language I use, the topics I choose, the arguments I present. I want to be able to view all the data as a big mind map, or a treemap, with the categories and tags as branches. I want to be able throw them at a Wiki builder so it becomes one big Wiki without me having to do anything fiddly. I want to throw all the posts into a PersonalBrain, where the links between articles turn into links between thoughts. Then I want to throw all my emails into the mix and see what pattern they make. I want to move between all these ways of looking and manipulating my stuff without me having to worry I can’t ever go back.

In short, I don’t want to commit to one program. I want my data to be in charge, and the programs themselves conform to the data, not the other way around. Perhaps this is impossible. But why should it be?

Twitter: SMS for Those Who Missed the SMS Revolution

Joi Ito neatly sums up what Twitter really is: The U.S. dudes finally getting what has been going in the rest of the world for several years: the Internet is all around us, whether it’s the web or SMS.

clipped from joi.ito.com

Twitter was funny for me because it was like the whole “laptop crowd” getting the “aha” that Europe and Asia had with SMS awhile back – the idea that the Internet isn’t about “cyberspace” that turns on when you open your laptop, but that the Internet was something that you could carry around with you and that could ping you when it needed you.

Twittintimacy?

Everyone is twittering about Twitter, but I kind of liked this defintion from Leisa Rechelt; “Ambient intimacy”. I like the term, and the piece is definitely worth a read.

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

Twittering in the Forest

I was a bit rude about Twitter in my last WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid), about the Web 2.0 satire Useless Account:

I can’t have an online conversation these days, for example, without someone telling me to use Twitter, a fabulously popular way to broadcast your current activity (and I mean current, as in “ear cleansing while waiting for YouTube to load”) to anyone interested, via your blog or cellphone. (Yes, I have signed up. No, I don’t use it much. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, so the idea I’d actually be in a position to tell anyone else is unlikely. But how long will I hold out from using it? Probably not long.)

Of course, I’m probably on the wrong side of history here. Scoble et al love it. He has 469 followers (in case you have better things to do with your time, Twitter allows you to ‘follow’ other people’s twitterings, to basically see everything they write in their twitter account.

In fact, the ‘follower’ moniker is somewhat apt — Web 2.0 has become very religious, what with all these A list bloggers and product evangelists. People follow Scoble in the way they might have followed some mystic. (Of course I’m jealous! I’m not being followed by anyone except that mangy cat from the warung and some weird person who thinks I’m writing this blog for him.)

Anyway, Twitter probably tells us more than we’d like to know about this particular slice of Internet history. Robert says:

Anyway, I find I keep coming back to Twitter. It’s an interesting way to keep in touch with the lives of your friends, or followers, as it were.

It’s not as if this is not a bad idea. I’m into the idea of presence — being able to broadcast your availability so that those trying to reach you can fit their schedules into yours — and vice versa. Set your Skype note to “in a meeting and about to rush for a plane” and friends will know that you probably don’t want to yack on the phone about Britney Spears’ new hairdo. But Twitter probably takes this a bit too far — instead of it being a tool to fight distraction, as presence tools are — it becomes a tool of distraction, where one obsessively updates, and monitors others’ updates, to the exclusion of all else.

I prefer the assessment of Shawn Oster who suggests that in fact Twitter is about people feeling

they’re being heard. Everyone wants to feel unique and to feel like they matter, that they’re being noticed. Blogs are a great way to do that but now that there is more pressure to make your blog actually mean something instead of just an online diary people are looking for an easier way to still be digitally heard.

Probably truer than we’d like to admit. We’re firing these little messages out into space, and by building around us a network of friends and followers we’re feeling connected and noticed. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a reflection of what constant communication is doing to us: we don’t feel ‘validated’ unless what we’re doing is somehow observed and noted by others. The old tree falling in the forest thing, I guess: If no one heard it fall, did it make a sound? If no one knew we went out for milk and newspapers, did we?

I’m off to buy milk and newspapers and will report as much to my 1.5 followers on Twitter.

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