FoJ09 talk: Twitter as a system of ambient journalism

Here are the slides and the text of my presentation on ambient journalism at the Future of Journalism conference at Cardiff University:

Twittering the News: The emergence of ambient journalism

My paper looks at new para-journalism forms such as micro-blogging as “awareness systems”. For this I have drawn from literature on new communications technologies in computer science to suggest that these broad, asynchronous, lightweight and always-on systems are enabling citizens to maintain a mental model of news and events around them, giving rise to awareness systems that paper describes as ambient journalism.

I focused on Twitter as it has become one of the most popular platforms for micro-blogging – in the course of a year, the number of Twitter accounts jumped from 1.6 million to 32 million.

Twitter has emerged as a platform to help organize and disseminate information during major events like the 2008 California wildfires, the 2008 US presidential elections, the Mumbai massacre and the Iranian election protests of 2009.

And there has been a rapid uptake of Twitter by journalists, provoking somewhat of a Twitter frenzy in some quarters of the media.

Seriously though, Twitter has been quickly adopted in newsrooms as a mechanism to distribute breaking news quickly and concisely or as a tool to solicit story ideas, sources and facts.

In the UK, national newspapers have 131 official Twitter accounts – with just under 1.5m followers. In March Sky News appointed a Twitter correspondent who would be “scouring Twitter for stories and feeding back, giving Sky News a presence in the Twittersphere”. And sites such as also aggregate journalistsʼ tweets.

At the same time, there is a degree bewilderment, scepticism and even derision towards Twitter from seasoned journalists – who often frame Twitter with established journalism norms and practices.

The prominent New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, for example, described it as “a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls.”

Setting aside ridicule, of particular concern to media professionals when considering the role of Twitter in journalism is the veracity and validity of messages.

The unverified nature of the information on Twitter has led journalists to comment that “itʼs like searching for medical advice in an online world of quacks and cures”and “Twitter? I wonʼt touch it. Itʼs all garbage”

Concerns by journalists that many of the messages on Twitter amount to unsubstantiated rumours and wild inaccuracies are raised when there is a major breaking news event, from Iranian protests to Michael Jacksonʼs death – and this is understandable.

Fragmented news experience

However, what I suggest is that the institutionally structured features of micro-blogging are creating new forms of journalism. I suggest that micro-blogging presents a multi-faceted and fragmented news experience. But when journalists look at Twitter, they tend to see isolated fragments of information, taking an interpretive standpoint as to utility of a tweet around a news event or topic.

By making a choice as to what to exclude or include, the professional remain the guardians of what content is published. What I am suggesting is that a different approach is needed to unlock the potential of collective intelligence of Twitter.

My aim is to contribute understanding of Twitter by introducing the concept of ambient journalism. I see new media forms of micro-blogging as  “awareness systems”.  In an awareness system, value is defined less by each individual fragment of information that may be insignificant on its own or of limited validity, but rather by the combined effect of the communication.

Considering Twitter as an awareness system offers us a new way of evaluating it as a source of news and information.

Awareness systems are defined as computer-mediated communication systems “intended to help people construct and maintain awareness of each othersʼ activities, context or status, even when participants are not co-located.”

Awareness systems have largely been discussed in the context of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work – some of the early research looked at the impact of connecting remote co-workers by audio/video links. But the emergence of increasingly affordable and ubiquitous information communication technologies have helped foster a renewed research interest in awareness systems.

One focus of research is awareness systems for use in personal settings, where lightweight, informal communication systems help people maintain awareness of each other. The idea is that these systems are always-on and move from the background to the foreground as and when a user feels the need to communicate.

Scholars suggest that awareness systems represent the next step in the evolution of digital technologies:

As this technology becomes more affordable, with greater quality and diversity, awareness systems offer tremendous potential for innovation, with a wide range of forms and contexts for transforming the space around us

The term awareness can be vague and problematic, as it often used in contradictory ways in the literature.

This paper adopts the definition of awareness proposed by Chalmers as “the ongoing interpretation of representations i.e. of human activity and of artifacts”.

Always-on awareness system

This definition can be applied to social media networks such as Twitter – messages considered as both the representations of human activity and as artifacts. Using this approach, Twitter becomes an ambient media system that displays abstracted information in a space occupied by the user of the service.

Here’s a basic example using Twitter search for the term, H1N1. In this system, a user receives information in the periphery of their awareness. An individual tweet does not require the cognitive attention of, for example, an e-mail message.

When we consider Twitter as an awareness system, the value does not lie in each individual fragment of news and information, but rather in the mental portrait created by a number of messages over a period of time.

This is what I describe as ambient journalism – an awareness system that offers diverse means to collect, communicate, share and display news and information, serving diverse purposes. The system is always-on but also works on different levels of engagement in terms of awareness.

In the literature on ambient media, the discussion focuses on how to improve peopleʼs quality of life by creating the desired atmosphere and functionality through intelligent, personalized, interconnected digital systems and services, with intelligent devices embedded in everyday objects

Take this approach to Twitter: if we consider it as a system of ambient journalism, the next stage is to consider approaches that can identify, contextualise and communicate news and information from a continuous stream of 140-character messages.

Implications for journalism

As an initial exploration into the impact of awareness systems on journalism, I am going to explore some of the implications of Twitter as ambient journalism.

The immediacy and velocity of these micro-bursts of data, as well as potentially the high signal to noise ratio, presents challenges for the established practice of relying on the journalist as the filter for this information.

During the Iranian election protests of June 2009, the volume of tweets mentioning Iran peaked at 221,774 in one hour, from a flow of between 10,000 and 50,000 an hour.

This analysis by an interdisciplinary group of researchers based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows the rate of tweets – Relevant tweets gradually increased as the events in Iran and the use of Twitter provoked attention.

The need to reduce, select and filter increases as the volume of information grows, suggesting a need for information systems to aid in the representation, selection and interpretation of shared information.

I suggest one of the future directions for journalism may be to develop approaches and systems that help the public negotiate and regulate this flow of awareness information, facilitating the collection and transmission of news.

The purpose of these systems would be to identify the collective sum of knowledge contain in the micro-fragments in a manner that would bring meaning to the data

There are already some web applications that are moving in this direction. Twitscoop aim to detect trends in real-time and visualise the “buzz” on Twitter with custom graphs that display the activity around words and topics.

Another similar web application is NowPublic.comʼs Scan – here seen in a pilot project with The Vancouver Sun.  Scan seeks to track the microblogosphere to “search the conversations on these sites based on keywords” and “find undiscovered news photos and videos by ordinary people and hidden links to breaking news”. Both of these seek to provide meaning to Twitter.

Journalism as a conversation

There are other applications to journalism when we consider Twitter as an awareness system.

The trend to share links on Twitter provides a mechanism for what has been described as a customized newspaper, “compiled from all the articles being read that morning by your social network”.

In this context, tweets provide a diverse and eclectic mix of news and information, as well as an awareness of what others in your network are reading and what they consider important.

The information transmitted is contents-oriented but it also provides a context for the news-seeking activities of others on the network – I suggest this could be a fertile area for research to that could make “visible the structure of implied communities” around news and journalism.

Moreover, the link-based nature of many tweets, and the trend to re-send the links as a “retweet”, can be analysed as both a form of data sharing and as a system for creating a shared conversation.

I suggest that this conversation could be considered a form of ambient journalism.  This is because retweets are not restricted by physical space, time or a delineated group. Boyd et al studied retweeting and suggest that it creates a distributed conversation that allows others to be aware of the content, without being actively part of it.

In other words, the “stream of messages provided by Twitter allows individuals to be peripherally aware of discussions without being contributors.”  This is significant in the context of engaging with audiences particularly in the context of Gillmor’s notion of journalism as a conversation.

Research is needed to determine how far Twitter, as an awareness system for news, is contributing to the creation or strengthening of social bonds and engagement in the news.

As with most media technologies, there is a degree of hyperbole about the potential of Twitter. Social media services are vulnerable to shifting and ever-changing social and cultural habits of audiences. Or at times, becoming overwhelmed – those on Twitter will be familiar with the Fail Whale.

While I have discussed micro-blogging in the context of Twitter, it is possible that a new service may replace it in the future.

I contend that it is important to focus on the qualities of micro-blogging – real-time, immediate communication, searching, link-sharing and the follower structure – and their impact on the way news and information is communicated. Twitter is, due to the speed and volume of tweets, a “noisy” environment, where messages arrive in the order received by the system.


I have sought to offer an initial exploration of the relationship between awareness systems and shifting journalism norms and practices. In these systems, completeness of awareness is not the goal, as it would be if an individual were actively pursuing an interest in a specific news event by following it in print, broadcast or online.

Instead of overburdening an individual with an endless stream of tweets, ambient journalism can be considered as an always-on, asynchronous awareness system informs but does not overburden you with information, and only makes you aware of them when you need them

One new role for the journalism professional may be designing the tools that can analyse, interpret and contextualise a system of collective intelligence, rather than in the established practice of selection and editing of content through the prism of news values.

It shifts the journalistic discourse on micro-blogging away from a debate based on raw data to contextualised, significant information based on the networked nature of asynchronous, lightweight and always-on communication systems.