Feb. 4, 2011 at 7:48 AM ET
Once you look, it's hard to look away. The tweets seem to come right from the center of the conflict in Egypt:
"Despite the blood and the pain, spirits here are sky-high. People singing the anthem & waving flags while throwing stones."
"I am ok. I got out. I was ambushed & beaten by the police, my phone confiscated , my car ripped apart & supplies taken”
"They are still shooting at us from the bridge lots injured, yet the gvt pretends it wants dialog."
There are desperate pleas for food, for help finding lost friends, even remote offers of first aid help from supposed professionals. ("Tip: Chest Injuries-unconscious person. Lay on injured side = good lung is higher & work properly")
There is even time for humor among the chaos.
"I kid you not. A group of us are practicing baseball with the stones they're throwing. Bats and all. Fun revolution."
Never before has an extended conflict provided so much on-the-ground information to a global audience. Much has been made of social media's role in organizing the protests within Cairo and around Egypt. But Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools may play an even more important role in spreading the news around the world. Enterprising protesters have even set up makeshift TV channels online, broadcasting live video from cell phones to the rest of the world. Social media might be compared to the use of shortwave radio during the 1950s and ‘60s, but it is dramatically more immediate and raw.
Despite this unprecedented access to first-person accounts, however, it's not clear whether social media is adding to global understanding or just adding to the confusion.
Twitter, the main medium for those broadcasting from the center of conflict in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, has proven to be a robust tool for instant observations. But it suffers from the same problem all Web media does: How does an average reader authenticate the source? It's easy to lie about your location, let alone your identity.
But Twitter, with its 140-character limitation, suffers from additional, unique problems.
*Diving into a stream of 140-character missives is like viewing a movie that begins in the middle of things ( “en media res,” filmmakers call it) with the intent of disorienting viewers. Hearing from someone tweeting with bloody hands near the museum does no good unless you know who he is and why the museum matters.
*The problem is compounded by speed. Even filtering Twitter using popular tags like #Jan25 results in a stream of hundreds of posts per minute -- far more than someone could digest.
*Tweets don't necessarily arrive in order -- and when other retweet them, even more confusion ensues.
C.W. Anderson, an assistant professor of media culture at the City University of New York, lamented this -- appropriately enough -- in a series of tweets on Wednesday.
"The major difficulty in following an event like today's battles in Tahrir Sq. on Twitter: lack of clear chronology; esp. confusing w/RTs (retweets). ...I'm seeing events from hours ago RTd as if current," he wrote.
Other tools have their own reliability issues.
Facebook is full of fake pages; after the Haiti earthquake, numerous fund-raising scams attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.
There are riveting first person, amateur videos broadcast by services like Bambuser (here's an example) and YouTube's CitizenTube. But these are usually dark, shaky, and confusing. Amateur photos are easier to digest, but share in the same authentication problem.
And the sheer amount of data hitting viewers necessarily results in information overload. Meanwhile, the lightning-fast speed of information spreading has a dark side, which came into focus in the hours about the Tucson shooting spree in January -- it's easy to spread false rumors quickly, which can then take on a life of their own.
Social media also can largely disappear at a government's whim. And the ease of pretending to be someone else through technology can make the situation even more confusing:
"Please don't respond to my phone or BBM (Blackberry).This isn't me," wrote sandmonkey, a blogger in Egypt who we quoted above as he described getting ambushed. "My phone was confiscated by a thug of an officer who insults those who call."
It can make news consumers wish they had a guide, someone with expert skill at distilling multiple sources of information and making sense of it all.
That's still the stated mission of mainstream media, but it often falls down on the job, said Brian Reich, who studies social media at his firm -- “little m media.” But he's also been disappointed so far in the ability of social media to help people make sense of the conflict in Egypt.
"It frustrates me to no end that even though we have a tremendous amount of information in theory, we keep falling into the same old patterns of how information is disseminated," he said. Many tweeters simply re-post professional journalists’ comments, for example. "In a lot of ways we have all these different sources all saying the same thing. It is not any different than it was, except maybe it's even worse. We have more information and less time to process it, and less deep knowledge."
Logging onto Twitter, like many Internet tools, can feel like walking into an enormous party where everyone is talking at once. It's true that when 1,000 people are speaking simultaneously, you can't hear even one . On the other hand, when you walk into that party, you very quickly get a real sense of the buzz in the room. Are people happy, or angry? Are they anticipating something, or getting ready to leave? Are they in danger? Twitter certainly gives long-distance observers that sense about Cairo.
But ultimately, if you want to find out what's going on in that party, you need to talk to three or four people -- the right three or four people who seem to be in the know. That's where old-fashioned trusted recommendations come in. Following journalists whose names you know -- like Richard Engel (@richardengelnbc)-- is certainly a good first step. Then you can use these trusted sources to help find other trustworthy voices online. U.S.-based columnist Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy), who is one of the rising media stars from the conflict, has regularly pointed followers to friends and colleagues she knows are on the ground in Tahrir Square.
Reich thinks it's this filtering of information -- between raw on-the-ground reports and polished mainstream media reports -- that must evolve to make social media truly useful during a crisis like Egypt. He equated the in-between layer to the role of a television director during a football game. The network might have 11 cameras watching the game, but it has to be someone's job to pick one camera at a time for people to watch.
"What social media are giving us now are all 11 cameras,” he said. “Not only don't we want to watch all 11 cameras, we can’t watch all 11."
In fact, experiments with alternate camera views show most viewers hate acting as their own director.
Reich calls the problem one of information management, and says one job title that's been given to this new layer of filtering is the "convener."
"One of the benefits of digital and social media is an ability to keep up to date with a fluid, dynamic situation,” Reich said. “That's great, but there has to be something more than just creating awareness that a situation is under way. Otherwise all that energy - won’t have any value.”
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
Social media is here to stay. There is a worthwhile debate going on about the amount of credit it receives in altering world events (Macolm Gladwell seems to be fighting the entire Internet on that one).
But when Sen. John McCain announces a significant change in his foreign policy outlook using Twitter and Twitter language ("@SenJohnMcCain: Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down"), you must concede the power of social media.
Following protesters in Cairo as they describe their predicament is ultimately riveting, but it requires the patience of a ham radio operator. Here’s how you can reduce your signal-to-noise ratio:
On Twitter, start by finding journalists and analysts you trust online, and follow them. Then follow their recommendations.
You can follow popular searches and "hashtags" like #Eygpt and #Jan25 but you will likely be overwhelmed. You are better off setting up a list on Twitter and pouring in people you decide to follow. Here's mine:
http://twitter.com/#!/RedTapeChron/eygpt (suggestions welcome)
Google has set up a very useful crisis page, with links to various on-the-ground tools. It also includes a "Realtime updates" box which neatly gathers related Tweets. It casts too wide a net for my taste, but still a good starting point.
Below is a stream of real-time Tweets from my list.