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The Revolution Will Be Tweeted: An Interview with NPR's Andy Carvin

October 23, 2012

Andy Carvin has been called a “relentless tweeter” by The Washington Post, “the man who tweets revolutions” by The Guardian and is credited by some with changing the face of breaking news around the world. Carvin is known as somewhat of a social media superstar for his embrace of Twitter as a “one-man news bureau.”  His official title is Senior Strategist for National Public Radio (NPR). He’s the man who tweets the Arab Spring from his office; from Tunisia and Tahrir Square to Libya, as recently as—well—today. 

But it’s not simply that Carvin tweets about the news; he effectively curates the news, in real-time on Twitter (to his more than 77,000 followers). When the revolution exploded in Tunisia, he went right to the source reaching out to Tunisians on Twitter for as-close-to-the-ground coverage from “real people” as he could get. And it worked. It worked by creating what an NPR blog post about his work called “a written record of revolutions in real time.”  Though some have taken issue with tweets he sends containing links to disturbingly graphic images reflecting the violence that’s occurring on the ground in these conflicts, Carvin is clear:

“War is hell—there's no way around that. And the growth of alternative media, social media, citizen journalism and the like now gives the public many ways to access content that would otherwise have been lost in archives. People now have the choice whether or not they want to bear witness, and I try to help them make an informed choice.”

NPR is increasingly using social media as a way to blend traditional reporting with new media storytelling [Editor’s Note: The Gates Foundation funds NPR’s global health reporting]. Its @nprGlobalHealth Twitter handle generates interest in its recently launched global health and development beat, which in turn uses a new hybrid approach to storytelling on these issues.

I communicated with Andy Carvin via email to get his perspective on the changing face of journalism and what it means for both storytellers and audiences.

AN: You’ve talked about your use of Twitter as a “crowdsourced newsroom” rather than a newswire (like Reuters or the Associated Press). But can organizations take lessons learned from your use of Twitter during the Arab Spring for breaking news and apply it to ongoing conversations via Twitter? I’m especially interested in the idea of relying on your followers to be fact-checkers so curation of content or crowdsourcing is easier.

AC: I think it's possible to engage in fact-checking, crowdsourcing, etc., on Twitter in one of two types of scenarios: either a critical mass of eyewitnesses, or a critical mass of subject-matter experts. In my case, I relied on both – people on the scene at protests and battles, as well as others who had first-hand experience or expertise in whatever I was working on. For example, on a number of occasions I worked with my Twitter followers to identify an ordinance used in Libya, including an anti-tank mine that was deployed against civilians, and an artillery round that some sources claimed was sold to Gaddafi by Israel but in truth had no connection to Israel. In each of these cases, I had all sorts of people come out of the woodwork to help me, from military veterans to reference librarians to everyday citizens who enjoyed solving a good mystery. I've used similar techniques to organize people online to fact-check presidential candidates, report on voting irregularities, identify volunteers to develop software in response to the Haiti earthquake, etc. 

The reason I prefer to call Twitter a newsroom rather than a newswire is because its fundamental strength is around real-time conversation. Yes, there are lots of news organizations, including my own, that send out tweets when there's news to share, but I like to take it another step further and tap into the collective skill sets of everyone following me on Twitter. They help me sort out fact from fiction and sort out rumors from the truth—just as you would in a newsroom. The big difference, of course, is a TV or radio news anchor would be surrounded by newsroom staff helping them create breaking news coverage, while I rely on my tweeps to play those roles.

AN: Your new book, “Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution” (publication date: January 2013) is about social media’s impact on journalism, arising from the social media revolution during the Arab Spring. Can you tell me why you wrote the book and what you hope people get from it?

AC: One of the main reasons I wrote the book is the ephemeral nature of social media. I tweet so often, I often forget what I posted a few days ago, let along 18 months ago. Fortunately, I have an archive of all of my tweets going back to 2007, including all of the retweets I did of others during the Arab Spring. That gives me access to a unique archive of materials that were experienced in real time, and then seemingly vanished. I wanted to go back and reflect on some of the more interesting moments of the Arab Spring, both in terms of the methods I used to conduct journalism and the countless people online who helped me do it. 

The other reason is that I wanted to document a new form of war stories—the types of stories that  would've otherwise fallen through the cracks if it hadn't been for social media. Countless citizen journalists risked their lives to tell the stories of their revolutions, and some of them were killed in the line of duty. I wanted to honor their efforts by telling their stories, as some of the stories they and I observed in real time thanks to social media.

Lastly, I wanted to do it for myself. The last 20+ months have been an absolute whirlwind, and writing the book gave me a chance to reflect on a number of events that happened so fast, there was no time to ruminate on them before I had to start covering something else. For weeks on end, I literally covered half a dozen revolutions simultaneously. The book gave me the chance to step back and think about the revolutions, country by country, and highlight the stories I felt were important to share.

AN: What’s next? Do you foresee any big changes in the social media landscape in terms of the way we interact using these tools?

AC: If I could foresee what's next in social media, I'd work in venture capital rather than journalism :-).  People are always asking me things like whether Facebook will last, or what the next Twitter is going to be. I really don't have any answers to that when it comes to it from a business perspective. What I do see, though, is a world that's getting much, much smaller, as more people access the Internet through mobile devices and interact with people they'll likely never meet in person. While most people will continue to use the Internet for business, entertainment, etc., there will always be subsets of people who use the Internet for their passions, volunteering their time and expertise to the things they care about. I feel like I'm just scratching the surface of what might be possible when it comes to collaborative journalism, and I have no doubt that similar methods could be used to tackle a wide range of issues and challenges across the globe.

If you'd like to follow Andy on Twitter and check out his "tweet stylings" for yourself, follow him at @acarvin.

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