News that is fit to tweet

The other day I logged into my “home” page on Twitter and immediately knew that there was an earthquake in California, that swine flu has spread to 16 countries, and that the new movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine was out and it was getting pretty average ratings.

Interestingly though, I read about the earthquake before I read it on the BBC. I knew about the 16th country to confirm swine flu before getting it from any other place. I was also reading Wolverine reviews before they were on RottenTomatoes.com.

Ever since the scare of swine flu hit the world, it has been the most talked about word on Twitter, becoming what is called there a Trending Topic.

In my opinion, the use of new media has been quite interesting when it comes to swine flu. Never before had it been such a powerful tool for us science journalists. And the potential in it for us science journalists has been huge as well.

I believe this is a result of the community growing and becoming more experienced in applying all the different new media tools to give a more complete product at the end.

So let’s look at what was done.

First there’s Twitter, which was buzzing with news. The 140 character limit was not very helpful in providing news but users were pointing to articles, news stories, interesting blogs etc. At the same time, people were using it to decimate quick information such as symptoms and precautions. This became the source for fast information and updates for me.

Then there was the excellent tool that tracked the spread of the virus across the globe using Google Maps. The new layer was being updated real-time by people to provide information on which new countries are hit, the number of cases, etc.

Then came discussions on Friendfeed, another tool that can be used to show the best posts on certain topics, as well as thousands of blogs that sprung all over the globe. Then there were groups and communities being formed on Facebook to discuss the virus.

Now this was a very rich source of information, but it was a two-edged sword as well. For us journalists, searching for information online is a tedious task of wading through the world wide web to find a good signal-to-noise ratio. We have to go through so many pages that contain a lot of needless non-sense while we search for the information we want.

With the amazing amount of information that was being dissipated on Twitter, it became very tricky to maintain a proper signal-to-noise ratio. What is real and what is not? What is important and what is blabber? And you also had to deal with people in your network who were posting information such as what they had for breakfast this morning or what color they will wear while going out tonight. More chatter and noise to wade through while searching for the real gems hidden.

The real gems are varied. For example, you could find first-hand reports from people in Mexico. You could learn about information before they made news and when they did make news, you were directed to good information that can make a difference to your understanding or coverage of the virus.

But does that mean that these tools are not good or useful for our work? Absolutely not! It just means that we need to adapt to the tricky parts of these tools in order to make the best of them.

When it comes to Twitter, it really depends on how you want to use it. If you will use it as a journalist, then the secret is choosing to follow people who are not using it for lifecasting (such as the examples given above). Rather, you should be following people who are doing mindcasting, a term coined by journalism professor Jay Rosen (Twitter: @jayrosen_nyu). These are people who are actually posting useful information.

By following these, and unfollowing others who are posting useless blabber, you will have a much better signal-to-noise ratio.

You can then take some interesting information from there and feed it into discussions in Friendfeed. This will refine that ratio even further as you host interesting, useful discussions with the community that you choose to build. The same with Facebook as well.

And this is where the secret to using all these tools lies. It is all about forming the proper networks and communities to serve your purposes. After all, community forming is the heart of all these new tools of blogging and microblogging.

Having the right community will give a collective, comprehensive edge to your coverage – giving you access to a large amount of information that would have been near impossible to gather with the old tools.

And now for the million dollar question. Does new media replace traditional media here? For me, definitely not. I was still checking the BBC, Nature, and a host of other websites daily. But it did give me much more information than I would usually get from these sources. And it did put me in touch with people on the ground in ways that traditional media could never do.

And most importantly, it made my work the result of a collaborative effort of tens, if not hundreds, of people, rather than my own.

Oh, and I also now know that I should not be in a hurry to watch Wolverine. It can wait.