The Boston Marathon bombings. Tornadoes in the Midwest. Now, tragically, Ferguson. When serious breaking news happens, many of us turn to social media—especially Twitter—to keep up and get the most detailed information we can as quickly as possible. But the events in Missouri these last few weeks made me think about the deficiencies of our current information tools, and how we might improve the social, breaking news experience.
Scanning the Ferguson hashtag feed I found myself thinking there were more links than there actually were. I accidentally went to the same link a few times, which means Twitter was steering me back to the same content when what I wanted was more: more angles, more story, more narrative. During these high-volume moments—20 tweets every 15 seconds—we need a better filter to separate the signal from the noise.
Suggestion: Add a check mark next to any link that you've already visited. Better yet add the logo (favicon) of the site. Twitter should know the links associated with tiny URLs and should use this info to alert users when a link they’ve already visited appears in a new and different tweet. Finally, Twitter should automatically build a list of media links connected to trending hashtags like #Ferguson. That way, users can enter a kind of "speed mode" and swipe through each item until they’ve seen everything they want to see. As long as they can refer back to the originating tweets, the appropriate context will be maintained.
Hashtags unite content and help users discover it, but especially during a crisis, people want to find real news amid a sea of emotion and opinion. There is no doubt that the collective value of these millions of impressions is hugely important (and can be mined later by sophisticated analytics programs to understand how people felt about what was happening). Not to mention bystander tweets can be considered—like traditional reporting—the first draft of history. Still, too often in these situations hashtags can be hijacked, which renders them less useful. This isn’t necessarily a solvable problem, but a few tweaks could make it easier to find useful information in a deluge of tweets.
Suggestion: Like in a commenting system, allow users to rate tweets according to usefulness. For instance, you could assign content a value ("emotional" versus "informational") to help provide another dimension of understanding. In this way a passive viewer of the timeline becomes an active user by helping sort and "traffic" social media content in real time. With the help of other real-time labeling features, content curation can happen at the same speed as events on the ground. To a certain extent Twitter is doing this already with "top tweets," but it's unclear how these are selected.
I accidentally entered "#Ferguson" into the Firefox address bar and received the error message: "The address isn't valid." Users now expect different platforms and channels to understand the hashtag.
Suggestion: Open more gateways into feed information. Hashtags URLs should emerge as a way to collect anything inside and outside of walled gardens where information flows in but has trouble flowing out. Hashtags are in use in several websites already, like Facebook. But hashtags have problems jumping between open and closed social networks. Hashtag URLs could mask the activity of smashing together information from all over the web—and in that way be a truer vision of an open Internet.
Furthermore, applications we love could morph into crisis mode. A few years ago, I suggested enabling the new website for a Middle Eastern university to be able to transform from a static, single message page into a series of narratives inspired by Cynefin dynamics should a campus or PR crisis ever emerge, and I still think this is an unrealized opportunity.
Sadly we will not be seeing the end of crises and tragedies unfolding in real time anytime soon. Our digital tools—especially Twitter—have transformed the way we process and understand these events, and the hashtag in particular has emerged as an optimal mode of organizing the crush of information they unleash. But we can do even better: to get people the info they want no matter how they’re trying to access it, to ensure the most useful information rises to the top, and ultimately to help us make sense of often terrible, always complicated and incredibly fast-moving situations.