News That’s Fit to Tweet?

Robert Stribley   November 13, 2009
News lovers beware. (Image courtesy of the talented Eleanor Rudge)

The breakdown: Robert Stribley discusses how a recent national tragedy was covered in the Huffington Post through a consolidation of local tweets.  What’s the impact of using these Twitter lists on citizen journalism?  Read on to find out.

“Good lord, is this hen scratch they call tweeting REALLY supposed to keep us informed?” – goodog, Comment posted 06:10 PM on 11/05/2009, The Huffington Post

Late last week unwitting citizens of Fort Hood, Texas suddenly found themselves serving as national correspondents, when the news-aggregation site Huffington Post began livecasting their tweets. HuffPo corralled their tweets via Twitter Lists and presented them within a Twitter widget—both shiny, new features the micro-blogging service had released just days before.  The implementation by the Huffington Post was somewhat shoddy. As of this moment, it’s still running.

Some background: On Thursday, November 5th, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan began a shooting rampage at the Fort Hood military base that left 13 service men and women dead and 29 injured. In an attempt to tap into local reactions to the event, The Huffington Post set up the Fort Hood List and began streaming the tweets of people whose profiles indicated they lived in the area. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

HuffPo should have considered the impact of posting random tweets simply based upon their geographic location. Instead they let loose with a torrent, and the results, as people quickly noted, weren’t pretty. Don’t get me wrong: There were some poignant and informative tweets. However, many of them weren’t particularly relevant, were inaccurate, or made little sense out of context.

Some examples:

iTraceyRenee: watchin Gucci Mane ft Usher – Spotlight Video

Barbaramagana: Writing blog. hmm what will the topic be!!!

RicoRossi: I’m about to go assist in oral surgery, ill tweet later

sunnylena: @ArmyBarbieGirl do u have children?

One 17-year-old participant mentioned the Fort Hood incident precisely once, before resuming her random, typically sexually explicit tweets. Which are still being posted to HuffPo, as of this moment.

A few issues are at play here. Let’s take a quick look at them.

Security by Obscurity

Ideally, people should be made aware when their tweets are being broadcast in a more prominent venue. Now, arguably, the whole point of Twitter is to disseminate information in a public venue. And, by publishing content to Twitter (and, increasingly, Facebook, too), folks are engaging in a privacy transaction each time wherein they tacitly agree to make their content public. Unless they make their profiles private. For better or worse, people depend on “security by obscurity” where Twitter’s concerned. They realize their tweets are observable (one would hope), but they sometimes depend on their mutterings being lost in the noise. As we all continue living our lives more publicly, we’ll probably adapt and learn that security by obscurity is a myth.

In the meantime, publishing people’s tweets at such a visible level raises some issues. For example, in an internal conversation, Razorfish content strategist Rachel Lovinger suggested that HuffPo did Tweeters an injustice by publishing their tweets out of context:

It makes me wince that the top comment from a local says “Andy Pettitte, Houston misses you!!” I feel embarrassed for the person who said it and is going to be judged as shallow and insensitive, just because she used her Twitter account the way she always uses it, perhaps not aware that she’s now an unfiltered spokesperson for her troubled community.


How to avoid this context problem? Tweets should be curated, of course, at least automatically by keyword, if not manually. When they published their Twitter list, HuffPo claimed, “we’re capturing all the tweeted updates related to the terrible events at Fort Hood. This search is targeted, filtered, and local.”

Really? Targeted and local? Somewhat. Filtered? Not so much.

The first thing I thought upon seeing the Huffington Post widget was that many of the tweets weren’t remotely relevant. It desperately needed some curation. Of course, Twitter lists aren’t currently set up to do that. Since HuffPo couldn’t do the filtering, they put the onus on us. And why should we take on the cognitive burden of filtering out irrelevant, often inaccurate information? We came looking for signal, not noise.

Accuracy & Authenticity

For a news-oriented site, of course, accuracy should be the weightiest concern of all: by placing those tweets on their site, The Huffington Post amplified some misinformation, a problem more serious journalistic enterprises would be excoriated for.

Some have suggested we shouldn’t expect a high level of accuracy from real-time, citizen journalism. Perhaps. But relying on it is a mistake we’re seeing all too often. A more stringent process for participation certainly would’ve helped in this case.

Maybe we’re entering an age where – more than ever – news needs to be viewed with the admonition Caveat Lector, “Let the Reader Beware!” We should certainly maintain a healthy sense of skepticism when reviewing content, which comes our way. But news practitioners – and aggregators – should also be aware of the damage that the careless use of such information does to their sense of authority.

Unless sensationalism, not authority, is what they’re really aiming for, of course.

Further Reading

Columbia Journalism Review, “Fort Hood: A First Test for Twitter Lists”

Paul Carr, TechCrunch, “After Fort Hood, Another Example of How ‘citizen Journalists’ Can’t Handle the Truth”

Matthew Ingram, “Citizen Journalism: I’ll Take It Flaws and All”

The Content Wild Child: Your New PR Nightmare

Matt Geraghty   October 6, 2009

The Breakdown: Our own Rachel Lovinger gave a presentation at the MIMA Summit about what can happen when you don’t have a clearly defined content strategy. She showed several examples of common problems, and talked about content best practices that could have helped avoid these problems. The Summit will be posting video of all the presentations soon (including great keynote talks by Jackie Huba and Seth Godin), but for now, explore Rachel’s slides above.

The Brand & Social Media Shakeup

Matt Geraghty   September 16, 2009


Is your brand losing its fizzle online?  (image via FFFFOUND)

The breakdown: What is social media’s impact on the brand? Where is the line between a positive vs. negative influencer?  Do Twitter and Facebook really have a tangible benefit to the corporation’s bottom line? We asked a panel of some of our content and social experts their thoughts on leveraging social media to connect with the consumer.

Robert Stribley, Senior Information Architect

Companies who take social media seriously are reaping tremendous benefits for their brand. Coca-Cola, for instance, recently featured a prominent call to action on their homepage to direct visitors to their Facebook page.  Now, they have almost 3.7 million fans on Facebook.  So instead of relying on users’ infrequent visits to to communicate their brand message, now they can expose a huge audience to it with whatever frequency they like.

Michael Barnwell, Content Strategy Lead

Social Media has the tendency to inspire brands to launch an arms race with their consumers. In the event of negative commentary, brands will feel the need to offset that commentary with ever more charm and assurance. Brands secure in their products and services will resist the urge to rapidly fire back and trust the balance of commentary to work in their favor over time.

David Deal, VP of Marketing

It’s a myth that social media puts “consumers in control.”  Consumers don’t control anything, and we don’t want to, either.  We still want two-way relationships with brands, which means both the consumer and enterprise exert influence.  Social media strengthens that relationship by empowering consumers.  Smart companies are figuring out that by using social, the brand can be empowered, too.

Abbreviated version of this blog post here.

Shiv Singh, VP & Global Social Media Lead

Brands do not have a place on social platforms. People do.

Matt Geraghty, Content Strategist

Opening social media to help build your brand or reinforce corporate goals is not without its risks.  Yet if used in a thoughtful way, there can be enormous benefit to the overall brand impression that traditional marketing could never achieve.  Take a recent post by a new Ford customer where he details the experience of reaching out to Ford via Twitter which in turn would lead to a phone call to him from Ford’s CEO Alan Mulally. How many companies are really looking for this type of transparency?  Hard to say—but now more than ever is the time for bold experimentation.

Dawn Bovasso, Content Strategist

It’s not social media that creates strong relationships with customers — it’s consistent and direct customer service. Look at Zappos, who was known for their exceptional customer service long before social media came along. Social media has only enhanced the reputation they already had, not created or repaired it. Same for someone like Time Warner Cable, who is notorious here in NYC for terrible customer service; I don’t care how much they Twitter if I have to stay at home all day waiting for them and they don’t show up. Having quick and thoughtful responses to social media is great, but it’s secondary to direct customer service.

Rachel Lovinger, Content Strategy Lead

I hardly ever use social media to connect with brands. On Twitter and Facebook, I mostly follow friends, colleagues, celebrities and organizers of events I like to go to. I don’t really even like getting email from companies I’ve bought stuff from. I guess I’m not the kind of person that likes to be poked by brands online. If I want to know about them, I’ll go to their website.

Follow Rachel on Twitter

Now Watch This: ‘We Live in Public’

Rachel Lovinger   September 1, 2009


We Live in Public is playing at IFC Center until Sept. 10, and in other cities soon.

Robert Stribley and I recently started a movie screening series called Razorflix to show interesting documentaries about creative endeavors once a month in the office. Last week a few of us went on a field trip to see We Live in Public at the IFC Center. The film depicts Josh Harris, an internet entrepreneur who used his Bubble 1.0 earnings to fund several projects around capturing and broadcasting video of regular people living their lives. One of these experiments, called Quiet, was a locked-down community where dozens of people lived together in close quarters and had cameras pointed at them everywhere they went, every minute of the day. It got messy. Harris and director Ondi Timoner were on hand afterwards for a Q&A. Days later, Robert and I were still thinking about it.

Robert: What did We Live in Public leave you thinking about?

Rachel: I was thinking afterwards how weird it is that the two cultural icons that people were comparing Josh Harris to were Andy Warhol and Gilligan.

Robert: Right. Of course, he invited both – especially Gilligan.

Rachel: I could see the Warhol comparison. He was also kind of a mad genius who didn’t know how to relate to people except through using them in his art.

Robert: Well, it seems a little exaggerated, but it is eerie to see the parallels between what Harris was doing and what’s coming to fruition online.  And his point about people wanting “15 minutes of fame every day” is certainly taken. Seems Warhol was a little less misanthropic though.

Rachel: Well, the thing about the “15 minutes of fame” that I guess Warhol didn’t take into account is that for some people it would be addictive. Harris seemed to see that.

Robert: It’s an excellent point. And Warhol didn’t have the Web and social media to inspire his thinking … does make you wonder what he’d have done with them. Would we be following @andywarhol on Twitter?

Rachel: Absolutely! Warhol would have loved Twitter!

Robert: I’m sure.

Rachel: I don’t think everyone is so addicted to online celebrity.

Robert: Right – that’s where I think Harris is projecting. He attributes his own thoughts and motivations to others a lot.

Rachel: Well, the screen was his companion as a child. I loved that comment when someone said, about him, “He finally crawled into the TV, and he found it very lonely when he was in there.”

Robert: If I were allowed dime store analysis, I’d suggest many of his projects were about procuring intimacy – as if it could be conjured – or in some cases demanded.

Rachel: It’s very one-directional intimacy.

Robert: But he also found many other kindred spirits who desired the same. Though that doesn’t mean they connected much.

Rachel: Yeah – they watched others, or they were excited about being watched, but they weren’t really interacting. I can’t decide if I’m impressed with the way he predicted what would happen with social media, or disgusted by the grotesque way he chose to demonstrate it.

Robert: Little bit of both?

Rachel: Maybe both.

Robert: One of the biggest takeaways for me was seeing just how much people were willing to give away of themselves … for free. As participants in the Quiet project, they were like content slaves, chained up in a galley, where they created content for him for free, or for at best for a little titillation, a smidgen of fame.

Rachel: They got to “be part of something.” And some people just like to be watched. There was that guy in the audience at our screening who had been in Quiet and he seemed, a decade later, to still be doing the same kind of thing with his life.

Robert: His most chilling quote – or one of them! – was the one about how everyone in the experiment got whatever they wanted for free, but that what they revealed on those tapes belonged to him … cue transition to Facebook screenshot.

Rachel: But I don’t think most people use social media like that, do you? Sure there are the exhibitionists, but…

Read the rest of this entry »

I Want My Tweets Back

Dawn Bovasso   August 5, 2009


“Don’t delete my tweets Pete.” (image via Ben Pearce)

I had a slight panic attack yesterday when an entire string of direct Tweets disappeared from my account. I’d been having an intense back-and-forth with a friend; at first I thought I’d been blocked, then I thought my account was corrupted, and then I just had no idea what happened.

So I did some tests using two of my accounts. It turns out that both the sender and the recipient of the Tweet have equal control over the deletion of the Tweet, even when it’s a direct message. If you delete direct Tweets from your sent box, they also disappear from the recipient’s inbox.  And if the recipient of a direct Tweet deletes it from their inbox, it disappears from your sent box.  It even disappears from your iPhone text notifications.

I was mortified – as a librarian, as a content strategist, and as a social stalker.  Those direct messages that disappeared became mine once they were sent to me!  The copies may belong to the sender, but once the messages were sent to me, the final ownership changed hands, didn’t it?  And how can someone have the right to delete something out of my inbox?  Or out of my sent box?

This debate over who owns digital content isn’t new.  Back when my co-workers and I at the Boston Public Library began digitizing rare books, we ran into similar issues: is the owner the original copyright holder of the intellectual property itself, the creator of the digital version, or the recipient of the digital content?  This question has shifted into social media, like whether or not Facebook has ownership rights to what is posted.  But no one is really debating the ownership of privately sent digital content – like a direct Tweet or Facebook message – the equivalent of handwritten letters.

For example, if you send me a handwritten letter, I am the permanent owner of that letter – you can’t demand it back. Libraries never even considered ownership/copyright issues around the hardcopies of the manuscripts, because it’s just assumed that the physical recipient is the legal owner. But if you send me an email or a direct Tweet, aren’t I the indefinite owner?  Do I own the future rights to it, or do you?  According to Twitter, we both own and control it equally.

I’d seen minor versions of this, but nothing on this level. I wasn’t as alarmed by the “undo” in Gmail, because you only have a few seconds to retrieve your content; it’s more like a second thought than a reclamation.  Amazon’s similarly outrageous behavior with the Kindle (changing/removing books from your Kindle without your consent) gets into this gray area too, though somehow it feels like less of a violation because it isn’t a message that someone has given to me directly.

But Twitter has taken ownership of content into an entirely new place by allowing direct, personal, and given content to be taken back – without permission or even notification. Why is it ok to allow the sender to rescind without permission of the new owner just because the delivery method is electronic? Why is it okay for the recipient to delete content from the sender’s account?

And, most importantly, who will set the precedent for ownership of electronic content? Is it really going to be Twitter?

I Stalk, Therefore I Strategize

Dawn Bovasso   April 6, 2009


Just a hair’s breadth away from breaching New York State Penal Code § 120.60.

There are two kinds of “Social Media Strategists.” The first, of course, is the kind we have at Razorfish and other agencies: people who tell you how to use Facebook to increase site traffic and to promote your brand. The second is much more common, but much less publicized: people like my best friend Maggie and me. We use Facebook, etc., for real strategy. And by “real strategy,” I mean “online stalking.”

Maggie, who is actually an accountant, is an extraordinary Social Media Strategist. Because she is socially and emotionally obsessed with several people – and because she has a lot of free time and is willing to overlook certain Terms of Agreement – she knows how to access, manipulate, and aggregate social content more than anyone I know. She knows each and every interaction on Facebook, including all of the limitations and loopholes.

Like Maggie, I have been known to do my fair share of stalking – I do tend to joke about it. But it was Maggie who came up with the idea of creating separate identities in other networks to access people in other cities; she realized that there were all kinds of permission levels that could be accessed through friend-of-friend connections and network permissions through these less-than-legit friends. I was impressed with her ability to access content that seemed to be off-limits.

(She has, since then, been called out by Facebook for violating their Terms; at the time she did it, she didn’t know it was against the rules (neither did I, for that matter). Her mistake though, was in the name choice: naming her identities things like “Sarah New York” was a dead giveaway. A CSer would have known better.)

As for me, I haven’t created any fake identities (I swear!), but stalking has turned me into a conflicted Social Media Specialist. For example, as a CSer, I think that it is a violation of privacy that you can access a stranger’s entire photo album just because one of your friends is in that album. But as someone who frequently looks for photos of people who are untagged and in obscure albums, I love it.  And I feel the reverse regarding the fact that businesses can’t see the profiles of their fans: as a CSer/UXer I don’t really care, but socially, I really want to be able to see those profiles.

Honestly, I wonder if I would have noticed any of these things had I just been using Facebook as a regular interactive CSer – or even a real Social Media Specialist! – and not some nosey, obsessive stalker. But either way, if you have any questions about Facebook or want to know anything about anyone, feel free to ask Maggie or me…

To Fabricate or Not to Fabricate

Robert Stribley   March 12, 2009


Lifeless, shiny, efficient: Astroturf, the hoax which fools no one. (via)

Here’s the situation: You’re sitting in a meeting with your client when they ask you to write up some glowing reviews of their wonderful new widget. Let’s be clear: they want you to make stuff up. Do you accept your mission? Or do you graciously turn the creative writing exercise down? Before you make that choice, consider a couple of instances where this practice – what might loosely be described as astroturfing – went terribly awry.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Scatter/Gather is a blog about the intersection of content strategy, pop culture and human behavior. Contributors are all practicing Content Strategists at the offices of Razorfish, an international digital design agency.

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