Breaking News via Social Media

Some thinks about media coverage of breaking news, especially social media or social news coverage.

Ah, the pun title. A mainstay of smarmy journalism for centuries. This post looks at how some of the media currently works and how it could work for ongoing stories such as the recent events in Boston and environs. It focuses on the social media side of things.

People get so-called breaking news from three major mediums:

  • Television
  • News websites
  • Social websites

Television still lacks interactivity. You rely on the producers and other workers to decide when you get to see a map. On your way out, wanted a quick update, but got a commercial instead.

Television continues to be delivered reliably, though. As do major news websites.

Social websites, on the other hand, tend to have load issues. They tend to link to other sites that will have load issues. They dig deep and share deep, compared with mainstream media. The sheer number of high power data processors (ie, brains) at work makes the social efforts a force to be reckoned with, no matter how much training and experience the professionals have. Top that off with the fact that the group can throw the mainstream’s coverage into their mix, and it starts to seem like the technical issues deserve more attention.

The ethics of social news gathering start to mirror those of the mainstream / of professional journalists. Try to vet the sources / information, don’t accuse without sufficient evidence and confirmation, etc. But social wavers at least as much as mainstream on these points, with the recent events showing gun jumping by both traditional and nontraditional media.

The technical issues at hand for social media mainly center on distribution. Describing distribution as a graph works well. You really do not want every node to talk to every other node. You will heavily overload some nodes and underload others and critical nodes may drop out to go sleep or eat. You also end up with a lot of noise and likely some signal loss or at least delay, as a single column of comments tends to be abused and also keep people from participating.

What probably makes sense: nominate people to be one-off group nodes, and if they do well then increase their ranking. They will receive the comments from a group of peers, and will forward to higher-ranked nodes. And so on, until (depending on the size of the network) they reach the highest ranks, which provide the actual updates.

This model is roughly how the human brain works. Roughly, because it may be that the brain has specialized neurons that handle the hub functions, and neurons tend to have better firing coordination, and neurons don’t usually go to sleep or eat in the “dropped out” sense that people do.

But the biggest technical challenge to social news, and likely to major improvements of coverage by traditional outlets, comes from the thankful rarity of these high-impact, short-lived events. Practice makes perfect, but how many species get to practice black swan style events?

Social news probably can have an advantage over traditional news here. They can build a game version, much in the way the military participates in war games. If someone develops a method to train people for breaking news, and builds the sites and tools to make it more likely to succeed in these simulations, they will likely see greater success in real world scenarios as well.

“Humans, keen to organize themselves using their new global network, found the strength of giants in their numbers.” — A historian looking back on the beginning of the Glass Age


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