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Mumbai news fished from Twitter’s rapids

Sree
Sreenath Sreenivasan, working from his Manhattan home, used Web-based radio to pool journalists and experts to detail and analyze the attacks. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

"Grenade attack in Colaba market,” read a Twitter message from a user named Abhishek Baxi last Wednesday. Then a few minutes later. “Blast outside Oberoi Hotel in South Mumbai.”

Baxi was one of the first Twitter users to post updates about the attacks in Mumbai. But he was far from the last.

The microblogging medium, along with several other new media platforms, saw its first sustained action in an international crisis. As awareness of the attacks spread, the Twitter throughput soared. Once a way for friends to keep each other updated on daily routines, Twitter is now looking more like a legitimate medium for short bits of information. The problem is there’s just way too much of it.

During the attacks, users from around the world posted tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of short notes, updates, musings and links to the latest information on Mumbai — many, if not most, of the facts coming from mainstream news outlets.

Baxi listed himself as living in New Delhi, hundreds of miles from the action, which means he was probably repeating something he saw on the news.

Though it’s certainly possible with the right amount of patience and know-how, finding useful “tweets” during a major event like this is a little like panning for gold ...

...in a raging river.

Gaurav Mishra, a social media researcher at Georgetown University who’s been tracking the Web’s role in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, was cautious about Twitter’s general usefulness. The service “played an extremely important role when the focus was on sharing news,” he said, meaning that once certain tidbits came out, they spread quickly. But, he added, because so much of it was recycled or dubiously sourced, “the journalistic value of Twitter is suspect.”

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said the official counts weren’t in yet but that he was “fairly comfortable saying that this is the biggest international event Twitter has been part of.” When asked about the best ways to sift through all those tweets, Stone offered that “more refined ways of filtering and searching are part of Twitter’s near future. We are focusing on tools now that will help users extract more relevance from the volume of data.”

The Mumbai attacks, and the way they unfolded in online media, are indeed an excellent case study on the idea of “extracting relevance.” For those who prefer sitting back and allowing their information to be doled out to them in nicely digested chunklets, television news remains the La-Z-Boy of news consumption.

On the spectrum’s other end, if you want your information raw — as in, immediate, unprocessed and full of impurities — you can head up to the digital river and roll up your sleeves. It’s a lot of work getting information that’s both reliable and brand new.

A few years ago, sane people would have still argued that the whole point of taking your time with reporting a story is so that you have a chance to synthesize facts, evaluate your sources, double-check and get your story straight. But no one would ever say that anymore: Things are speeding up, not slowing down, and Twitter and its insta-reporting counterparts are here to stay. Separating the signal from the noise has to happen at just about every level of online news consumption.

And that’s where Sreenath Sreenivasan came in. Taking advantage of another new media platform, Sreenivasan, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a technology reporter, began a series of online radio shows to help readers make sense of the sprawling and fragmented situation.

Sreenivasan tapped into a network of peers — the South Asian Journalists Assn. — to find an international group of reporters, historians and novelists, as well as regular people in Mumbai. Internet radio is just like broadcast radio, only it allows listeners to tune in, write in or call in from anywhere in the world. In a sense, then, the virtual brain trust assembled for the SAJA webcast was a living answer to the problem of information overflow: Link together a bunch of varied perspectives, pool a bunch of expert knowledge, and suddenly the picture gets a little less fuzzy.

“I never got the sense that people were competing,” said Sreenivasan, comparing the share-first approach to a group of reporters getting together and reading each other their notes. “That’s a great attitude to have.”

— David Sarno

 
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