The News Race

Patriots’ Day.
Horrific. That’s really the only word I can use to describe the events from Boston today. I started my day with a congratulations message from Foursquare, celebrating my 4th year using the service. I had, coincidentally, even worn my Mayor shirt during my bike ride to work. I knew Foursquare Co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley was running the Boston Marathon Monday, but I had no idea as I boarded my train this morning what an effect his updates would have on me the rest of the day.

I was only mildly interested in the race, but it was fun to check in on Mr. Crowley’s updates as he made his way, mile after mile after mile, along the course. Then, after mile 22, he admitted that the hills had done him in; he was walking.

I, like many of his other followers, urged him on towards the finish. He was so close. And he was doing it for charity. So, why not? Give him some encouragement. Reassure him the we were all pulling for him. Tell him that it was mind over matter. 

We had know idea that his slowed pace may have saved him from serious injury. When the time between his updates grew longer and longer, I figured the race had beaten him. But he was still getting close to the finnish. 

Because I was refreshing just his Timeline, I was unaware of the updates that were starting to trickle in about the explosion. Then, Mr. Crowley’s feed shocked me into paying closer attention.

I started clamoring for any and every bit of new information. And it all came from  Twitter.

We’ve seen Twitter’s usefulness during breaking news events again and again and again. We’ve also seen it used in nefarious ways. But what remains constant is the immediacy of the information that we have access to because of it. 

Now, getting a deluge of Tweets from the scene of an incident is very rarely helpful. We need some perspective. We need some context. We need help. From journalists, at the very least, or from those with some sort of inherent knowledge of the evolving situation. 

Today, the most informative updates in my Twitter feed about the bombings and their aftermath came from those trained to bring information to a mass audience: Andy Carvin, Anthony De Rossa, and Michael van Poppel.

However, I don’t want you to get the impression that I think only trained journalists should be sharing on Twitter. The exact opposite, in fact. But I do want these journalists to use all the tools at their disposal to make sure what we are all Tweeting is safe and accurate for mass consumption. 

Twitter is just one verification tool, but I think it could be improved. I have selected the people I follow thanks to years of watching news organizations, and the people who work for them, figure out how to use Twitter as a part of their day-to-day news operations. Some use it to promote their stories. Some to promote their personalities. But the ones I admire, and look to on days like today, are the ones that use it to give me a better idea of what’s going on right now, right when I’m curious. Right when I need to know.

Just last month, at SXSW, I spoke with Mr. Carvin about how he uses Twitter to gather information and share it with his followers. While that’s a service he performs publicly, as we voyeuristically witness his fact-checking and dissemination, his primary focus is to gather facts which can be presented by the organization which pays his salary: NPR. His work makes their stories better. His expertise makes their stories unique. His tools, however, are available to everyone. But they could be better.

Let’s look at Twitter Lists, for instance. This is an amazing, but all-but abandoned feature of this service I love. Lists are unbelievably useful on days like this. Create a list for people running in the race. Create one for Tweets geo-located near the finnish line. A list for local news organizations. For first-responders. Or politicians. But Twitter Lists are cumbersome to create and refresh and update. 

If Twitter needs a new revenue stream, how about a paid service for news organizations, or anyone else, which allows for the simple, quick creation of an unlimited number of Lists? I’d sign up. And not just for terrible days like today.  

This is a long post, longer than I intended. But it’s the only way I know how to deal with the disturbing images, thoughts, and devastation I’ve sought out and seen today. 

To all those who worked through this ruin—the police, paramedics, doctors, nurses, firemen, journalists, runners, family, friends, fans: I admire your courage, and wish I could do something more than just bang on this keyboard. 

If you think I can help you with absolutely anything, let me know. Anytime. Like maybe when I see you on the ‘morrow, on the Web.