Curating the Revolution: Building a Real-Time News Feed About Egypt

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Andy Carvin is a senior strategist at NPR working on digital media. He's known for putting together comprehensive and innovative packages around breaking news stories, and for the past three weeks, his Twitter stream has been a non-stop curation of the Egypt protests. Carvin has turned himself into "a personal news wire for Egypt."

We talked with him about how he gained 4,000 followers, why he hasn't mapped his sources, and if curation is the new journalism.

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PC: This is not your first dive into deep social media coverage of a breaking event. How do you get up to speed on key local resources so fast?

AC: I've live-tweeted and live-blogged for a long time: 7-8 years as far as live-blogging is concerned, and four years for Twitter, especially during the '08 presidential election. So I've gotten pretty comfortable capturing moments in real time.

Regarding this particular story, I've known North African bloggers for a number of years, especially in Tunisia but in Egypt as well, so I already had an idea about who some of the online players were, and their particular interests and goals. It certainly makes curation easier when you're familiar with some of the people involved.

So some of the people I've followed on Twitter in Tunisia and Egypt, I've followed them for several years already.

PC: How are you picking people to retweet and follow?

AC: The first step is to start with the people I know and see who they know--who they're @ replying to on a regular basis, who they follow on twitter, how many followers those people have and how long they've been tweeting, etc.

If you spend the time mapping this out, you end up developing a map of their social network, in the old-school sense of the world--the people they know in real life and interact with.

PC: Have you built yourself any maps?

AC: The maps are mostly in in my head, in all honesty ...

Occasionally I'll jot down a Twitter user's name just to be sure to get the spelling right. But when you're monitoring this tweet stream coming out of Egypt for 14-16 hours a day like I've been doing, you begin to learn it almost like a language.

So by now I know who's friends in real life, who's related to whom, etc.

PC: Have you considered putting together a map of Tweet users and their relationships?

AC: No, because frankly that could be used to hunt them down--and I see them as sources. That's very similar to what the Iranian government did to crackdown on protesters during #iranelection protests. They figured out peoples' real social networks by observing (or breaking into) their online social networks.

PC: There are class/status biases in how people use social media and social media tools--have you seen that reflected in Egypt?

AC: Well, the majority of people in Egypt aren't online, so the mere fact that a person is online raises the likelihood that they're educated and not destitute. But Internet access has clearly reached a critical mass when a percentage of the population is online, has a sense of the world, how they relate to it, and how Egypt is different from it.

But one thing you see is that the people who are on Twitter or Facebook in Egypt are often active in various other ways. For example, Alaa Abd el Fattah (@alaa on Twitter) has been a blogger for a long time and was imprisoned a few years ago for protesting for judicial reform. His father is involved with a legal center focusing on human rights. Does that make them elite? Sure, in a sense. But it also means they're potential influencers. Wael Ghonim (@Ghonim) is a great example--a respected Google exec has suddenly become the face of the revolution. Would that have been the case if he didn't work for Google? Who knows. But it might've been a bit harder to have as much influence.

PC: Ghonim is an interesting point--as Nancy Scola pointed out, he may be a Google exec, but he did it with "a suite of humble Internet-age tools." ... Can we talk logistics? What Twitter client do you use? What auxiliary tools are you turning to? What's the hack you're most pleased with?

AC: I use Tweetdeck for the most part. I'm not a partisan about it by any means, but it works for me, including on my phone. I'll usually toggle between various video feeds--Al Jazeera English, CNN, etc--on my Web browser. If I just have my laptop rather than my dual monitor I have at work, I'll use either my phone or TV to access the video. I have a number of columns in Tweetdeck for different things--twitter lists, hashtags, and sometimes individual tweeters. It's not really rocket science--it's just a matter of keeping up with the flow of information and knowing who's behind what post.

Oh, and one other thing--I have access to AP and Reuters wires in real-time, so I monitor those as well. Mostly I keep them in the corner of the screen and wait for stories that are color-coded as urgent and referencing either Egypt or Mubarak. That helped immensely when things were particularly chaotic last week.

PC: Old school journalism!... Is there a tool you wish you had right now?

AC: A ticket to Egypt, and fluency in Arabic.

Having said that, if I were in Tahrir Square right now, it'd be a lot harder for me to focus on curation with that much stuff going on around me.

So I suppose you have to make a choice as to what kind of journalism you will focus on. NPR's reporters in Egypt are focusing on audio; I'm sitting here in Washington, D.C. trying to create a real-time narrative of what's going on, straight from the mouths of people involved in the uprising.

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Phoebe Connelly is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.

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