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Twitter as Ambient Journalism

Up next at Future of Journalism 2009 is Alfred Hermida, who presents the first of two papers on Twitter and journalism. Twitter has grown massively in recent times, of course, and has attracted a great deal of popular attention, not least in the context of the disputed Iran elections. It has been rapidly adopted in newsrooms for tracking and disseminating breaking news, and UK newspapers alone now have 131 Twitter accounts and 1.47 million followers between them; Sky News now has its own Twitter correspondent.

But at the same time there is also great bewilderment and derision from journalists, who have a hard time coming to terms with this tool. There are the usual questions about veracity and reliability, and about who these Twitterers actually are. But through microblogging, a new form of journalism may be emerging: a multifaceted and fragmented news experience - isolated fragments of information which are evaluated in an isolated fashion by journalists are not helpful, and instead, it is necessary to move to a new form of 'ambient journalism' which focusses less on individual fragments of information but instead tracks the combined effects of this form of communication.

What is necessary here is to study the system of communication, drawing on the idea of awareness systems which are constructed to help users construct and maintain an awareness of those around them - these are systems which can move from the background to the foreground as and when we need them. This builds on an understanding of awareness as the ongoing interpretation of representations of human activity and its artefacts, and can be applied directly to Twitter by understanding it as an ambient media system.

For example, searching Twitter for a term like 'H1N1' throws up a great deal of tweets; none of these are necessarily important ot insightful in their own right, but in combination they point to current events and understandings related to the term. This must be supported by new systems which evaluate activity on Twitter create a personalised atmosphere and understanding; some such work has been done recently in the context of the Iranian elections, tracking the relative use of specific keywords over time to point to new events in the unfolding story. This helps filter the vast amount of information now regularly available, and helps journalists in the filtering, selection,and representation of information about current news stories, as well as identifying new material as it comes to light.

Sites such as are starting to do this, if on a basic level; there is also NowPublic's Scan site, which tracks the 'news buzz' in specific areas of reporting or for specific news sites. How can this be applied to established journalism? One thing that becomes possible here is the creation of a customised newspaper, compiling the articles read by one's social network; this visualises the structure of implied communities around the news, and can lead to the emergence of a shared, ambient conversation even without all recipients being inherently part of it - people may move in and out of that conversation as required. This also ties into the idea of journalism as conversation, of course.

That said, there is a degree of hyperbole about the potential of Twitter, so it's not necessarily about this site in particular - something may come up and replace it, but that still doesn't mean that systems which embody the qualities of microblogging won't continue to be around in the future, and that new forms of journalism which build on them should not be pursued. Ambient journalism is a kind of always-on, asynchronous system that doesn't overburden the reader and is available as and when needed.

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