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Thoughts on breaking news and Twitter

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMarch 12, 2009 10:59 PM


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The near hit of the ISS and a piece of space debris was quite the sensation this morning. It’s given me some things to think about

Twitter Logo

First, as DaveP points out, the mainstream news hardly even had time to put up a note about the potential collision until, in many cases, the whole thing was over. Yet on Twitter we were right on top of it. I have Tweetdeck (a Twitter reader) always open on my Mac desktop, so I constantly see the feed. I saw Nancy Atkinson tweeting about it, and immediately started looking around for news (going to NASA TV helped). I started tweeting about it myself, and sending people Nancy’s way to get info too.

Basically, by a few minutes before the event itself, thousands of people on Twitter were already getting the blow-by-blow.

The same thing happened in February with the Texas fireball. News on Twitter was flying about it shortly after the event. Remember, this happened just four days after the two satellites collided, so rumors flew that the fireball was a piece of the debris. I knew it wasn’t, and did my best to squelch that rumor. In this more recent ISS case, a few folks were speculating the debris might be from one of those satellites too, but it was quickly determined to be something else. That was never picked up by any big news service like the fireball was, so we avoided any rumors like that.

When I first heard of Twitter, I thought it was useless. Then a gunman held two people hostage at Johnson Space Center, and I tweeted info as I heard it. People really liked that, so I started tweeting Shuttle launches and landings, and people liked that too. What I’ve discovered is that Twitter is an awesomely useful tool for rapid dissemination of information. And as we saw with the fireball, it sends out misinformation rapidly, too.

I’m not sure what to do about that, except to try to have the ear of people with lots of followers, and send them the correct info. The more folks who hear it, the more who will "retweet" it, and the faster we can step on rumors.

So that’s one problem with Twitter. But there’s another.

Twice now I’ve received complaints that during these events, I tweet too much. That’s an interesting thing. We’re talking breaking news, and Twitter, we’ve seen, is profoundly useful in those situations. As news comes in, it gets out. Under normal circumstances, I don’t tweet that much, so that’s what people expect. When an event happens, though, I will increase my frequency by a factor of five or more.

I can see where that might irritate someone who follows me. But what can be done? I want to make sure that I’m getting information out as I find it out, and that means lots of updates. I certainly don’t want to tick anyone off, but what other choice is there? Ignore the news? That doesn’t work either.

So I’m honestly at a loss. The Shuttle launches again in a few days, and I’ll be on Twitter reporting it if I can. I don’t expect a solution between now and then, but I welcome ideas. If you’re on Twitter and have thoughts, leave comments below, please. But not too many! That’s irritating.

[Note added a bit later: I did get one public tweet from someone about doing it too much (MCPF&#153 Adam was just teasing me), but that’s not really what prompted this. I got some private messages after the Kepler launch (plus some from an old launch months ago) which spurred me into writing this.]

[Update 2: David Harris has some thoughts on this as well.]

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