J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Finally, a Creative Use For Twitter

Posted by chanders on January 16, 2009

All about the “January 20th Mass Observation Project.”

I’m a Twitter user, but I have to admit that I find all the oooh-ing and ahhh-ing about how Twitter will impact the “Future of Journalism,” to be a little bit irritating. If we’re going to be stuck developing a cool new Social Media technology every few years or so, are we doomed to repeat the breathless pontification about “what this means for news” every few years or so, too?

So far, much of the conversation has revolved around the fact that– as in the case of the Mumbai terrorist attacks or yesterday’s US Airways crash into the Hudson River— Twitter has allowed folks to spread what I call “news objects” about the event (pictures, facts, first-hand observations) to their social networks faster than the news, and without the intermediation of the actual news organizations.  But as my friend Amy Quinn, the Citizen Mom, noted yesterday, “The first photo of plane crash came from iPhone to Twitter. That doesn’t mean it’s the future of news, it’s the future of tipsterism … We need to stop assuming that b/c breaking news hits Twitter 1st it means news outlets aren’t working it. Hits police scanner first too.” This lead me to reply that this was one possible answer to Jay Rosen’s question about what people used Twitter for; that they used it as a sort of “open-source” police scanner.

None of this, however, seems all that interesting, and anyway, we’ve been talking about it for years. This, however, is interesting:

We are “Mass Observing” Barack Obama’s inauguration. The Mass Observation movement was founded by a group of 1930s’ British intellectuals intent on observing the minutiae of society. They believed the most revealing way to document an event was to report the peripheral activities, rather than the main event. The Mass Observers carried out their greatest project on May 12th, 1937, when they dispatched more than 200 observers throughout London to monitor the events surrounding the coronation of King George VI. Here are the notes of an observer in Central London:

9:45 a.m. Some scavengers removed dung. People tittered. A group of seventeen-year-old boys gossiped about Princess Juliana: ‘When I was in Paris she was there. Everyone liked her.’ They criticized the ugly decorations of Selfridge’s and other buildings, and discussed their careers. The crowd seemed apathetic, and I felt so too.

This is the brainstorm of some folks with “January 20th” (that’s their website). And they’ll be aggregating all the participant observations though– you guessed it– Twitter (that’s their Twitter feed). What do I like about it? I like the combination of ambition and the focus on “peripheral practices.” I like the deliberate anachronism and references to the past (the Mass Observation movement). And I like how it reminds me of some techniques that NYC Indymedia pioneered during the RNC in 2004. Anyway, I may actually even participate in the project, which is unusual for me these days. If you’re interested, here’s how to get involved.

Update: It appears that website organizers aren’t JUST looking for 140 character observations through Twitter, and I wanted to make that clear. Here’s what they say:

Most observers will likely choose to take notes on a note pad. We ask that you transcribe your own notes, making sure to record everything you jotted in your pad, and then send the notes in the body of the email or as a word document to observations@januarythe20th.com. In order to make organizing observations easier for us please note your observation location in as much detail as possible in the subject of your email to us. For example:

From: you@gmail.com
To: observations@januarythe20th.com
Subject: McDonalds, Food Court, Galleria Mall, White Plains, NY

Brief observations are encouraged too, and can be sent to the above email or via Twitter (www.twitter.com), our username is januarythe20th. “


One Response to “Finally, a Creative Use For Twitter”

  1. coffee said

    I’m glad no one was hurt in the crash, sounds like the pilot did a great job

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