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

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.


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.

PC: Hrm. That's a nice transition--who do you view as your audience?

AC: I'm not particularly comfortable with the term audience, because the people who read my tweets talk back to me, share my tweets, etc. Most of them are members of the general public interested in what's going on. Some of them are my friends who happen to be following me on twitter and are now subjected to all of these tweets.

And I'm followed by a number of journalists, both in Egypt and outside of it, and some of the protesters as well. It makes for a very dynamic mix of conversations that I just couldn't describe as a passive audience. In many cases, they actively assist me, translating content from Arabic, tracking down documents or videos for me, helping me verify rumors, etc. So some of them have become part of my curation process.

And in the last week or so my Twitter followers have jumped from around 16k to 20k, so there's clearly some interest in it out there.

PC: Wow! You had to be whitelisted by Twitter, right? Because of the volume?

AC: Yes, during the height of the violence a week ago, all of a sudden my tweets stopped working. I managed to get ahold of Katie Stanton at Twitter and she got her team to whitelist me pretty quickly. Even at its worst, I could still tweet once every five or 10 minutes, so it wasn't like I vanished in a black hole for a day. Most people probably didn't even notice I was having tweeting problems.

Apparently I've been hitting 400 tweets a day recently. Amazing and scary at the same time.

PC: In the past you've created a static thing--like your Tunisia Storify, or the Gustav Ning site. How come you're sticking to the stream?

AC: I'd argue neither of them were static--in fact, they were quite dynamic while the stories were playing out. The difference is in those cases I felt there would be a beginning, middle and end to the story that I could manage in real time, then tie it all together.

With Egypt, it's still hard to see how this is going to play out. At one point I started a Storify page for it but info was flying across Twitter so fast I was losing important details. So I decided I'd stick to twitter this time around. Besides, if I took all of these tweets and put it into Storify, it'd have literally thousands of tweets and other elements in it. It probably makes more sense for me to go back after the fact, dig through my tweets and create a narrative then. There's really no right or wrong way of doing this; it's just how things happened this time around.

Also, with Hurricane Gustav I was recruiting people to help build tools related to the storm emergency. Ning was good for that just in terms of how it's structured. In this case I'm really focusing on doing real-time curation, which is a whole other activity.

PC: Do you think curation is a new type, or approach to journalism?

AC: I think curation has always been a part of journalism; we just didn't call it that. Think of the word "media." It's about being in the middle, between the story and the public. The job of a reporter is to capture the most important elements to tell a story, and then go ahead and tell it. Watch any breaking news story on TV and you'll see curation going on. They'll quote sources, pull up clips from wherever, pass along info from pundits, etc. So curation itself isn't new; it's just the way that some of us are doing it online that's fairly new. The tools have evolved, but the goal of capturing a story and turning people's attention to it isn't.

PC: You told Ethan Zuckerman last week you were still trying to figure out what your goal is--any more clarity on that?

AC: Heh. I meant that somewhat half-seriously, in the sense that I started to curate both Tunisia and Egypt just because I wanted to. It wasn't an assignment for work or anything--I just figured I know a little bit about the region and have contacts there, so why not? By this point, I suppose my goal is to tell the story and stick to it, no matter how things turn out. I've basically turned myself into a personal news wire for Egypt. I didn't set out to do that, but I'm still very happy I've tackled it.

And meanwhile, I'm still wrestling with the question of how social media impacts social change. I'm not a partisan on the issue, but I'm still interested in it. Immersing myself in the revolts as they play out is helping me understand the bigger picture better.

PC: What should I have asked you?

AC: When do I sleep? Has my family disowned me yet?

PC: Have you trained your kids to tweet for you while you make dinner?

No, but my daughter did send out her first tweet a few days ago when I stepped away from my laptop for a minute. It said something like lkadjflasdf;adjfads. You'd be amazed how many people @ replied me to ask if I was ok--or if one of my cats had jumped on the laptop.

And you'd be surprised how many retweets you can do from your phone while you've got something in the oven.

Image: 1. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih. 2. Carvin's Tweetdeck. 3. Andy Carvin.