Telling stories together, one tweet at a time

We can expect a raft of new tools to make sense of social media for a new age of collective journalism.

Alfred Hermida is an assistant professor who leads the Integrated Journalism program in the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.

Sci-fi films often show a future where streams of information flow across screens, with intelligent agents sorting and filtering the digital deluge. The truth may not be that far removed from the fiction.

Social media services such as Twitter provide a platform for these streams of information, from the mundane to the vital. Missing, though, are media systems to help us manage and navigate the data flow.

We have rushed to embrace social media. By the end of 2010, Facebook alone had more than 575 million members, 17 million of them in Canada. Every minute, 24 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. On Twitter, 55 million messages are sent a day – more than 38,000 tweets every minute.

Through all of these interactions and contributions, we are, collectively, creating a vast digital archive of human history and experience. The former Washington Post publisher, Philip Graham, once described journalism as the first draft of history. Now journalists share this role with people formerly known as the audience.

Journalism surrounds us. Much of it is, literally, ambient, and being produced by professionals and citizens alike. Citizens – the former audience – are committing acts of journalism as they share experiences, photos, videos and links on social media services like Facebook and Twitter.

The challenge with ambient journalism is that so much of it is coming at us in real-time, from multiple directions. Fears about information overload are nothing new. The same concerns were raised after Gutenberg’s printing press, when thousands of books became widely available. In response, printers and scholars came up with novel ways to sort, filter and summarize the wealth of text.

We are at a similar stage with social media. Traditionally the journalist has been the mechanism to filter, organize and interpret information and deliver the news in ready-made packages. But the thousands of acts of journalism on social media make it impossible for an individual to identify the collective sum of knowledge contained in the micro-fragments. Instead, researchers are working to develop media systems that can process, analyze and contextualize the data.

For example, while messages on Twitter are atomic in nature, they are part of a distributed conversation. In aggregate, these streams of connected data contain the potential for real-time, collaborative and distributed storytelling. Inherent in social media are structures for people to act together as if in an organized way. One current way to do this is through the use of hashtags –the # symbol– on tweets to signpost topics and issues.

The digital tools available to aggregate and analyze tweets and updates are in their infancy. It is similar to the early days of the web in the late 1990s, when it was hard to find relevant information online until Google launched its search engine in 1998. Looking forward, we can expect a raft of new tools and services vying to be the best in negotiating and deriving meaning from social media streams.