I was on Twitter last night just looking around when two bombs exploded in the capital of Indonesia. I noticed a post from an Indonesian that included some photos, so I started following the story and retweeting posts I found.
It was strange to be talking to people who live in Jakarta, witnessed this and were scared. They answered my questions, explaining what time it was there and translating earlier messages to English. They were getting information out to a world hungry for news. They helped me understand what was going on, and I tried to pass that knowledge on.
But there were also people posing ideas as to who could have set off these bombs. They were tossing back ideas, in some ways pulling the usual suspects out of a hat. Maybe some of them were informed opinions, maybe they weren’t. On my Twitter application, Journotwit, there is a box called “Chatter.” That describes much of what is on Twitter. It highlights both its uses and its limitations.
There is no editor on Twitter. As Jeff Goldblum might have remarked, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” That is much of what Twitter is — exaggerated reports. I had a brief instant where I thought the wire services like AP and Reuters were doomed by Twitter, but the moment someone started throwing out that Al Qaeda might be to blame I new that wasn’t a worry.
Today I noticed a Twitterer who reported breaking news. I looked through all the Tweets and wondered how anyone could have access to so many stories. Then I realized there were no links to other news outlets to elaborate on the reports. Suddenly I was thinking how easy it would be to make up each and every one of those headlines. I’m not sure if this Twitterer was, but I had no way of determining one way or another.
I work as a reporter. One of my jobs is to be skeptical. If someone tells me something, one of the best questions I can ask is, “How do you know that?” On Twitter, when news is breaking, it is hard to ask, “How do you know that?” I was able to do it at the beginning, before #Jakarta started trending, with hundreds of new posts every minute, but soon it was information overload. Soon I had too many questions to ask too many people. It was mayham, and no one was there to create order.
At that point I started looking for links to real stories, links to stories printed by reputable news agencies. The AP and Reuters were quick to get information out, and I am much more confident in what they print than I am what some random person in Germany, Georgia or Gorham writes about Jakarta. It was exhilarating to be there for the beginning, but too quickly it degrades into madness.
How was it good? I was talking to Indonesians. I heard from a woman who was there, a young mother. It grounded the story more than any video of smoking buildings could. I talked to someone affected by the bombs. I was scared for her. I had empathy for Indonesians. That is what good journalism should do. Twitter did it. That is impressive.