Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How I Use Twitter Without Being Overwhelmed

Twitter does not have to be yet another echo chamber—provided you are selective about who you follow. By treating Twitter as a filtering device and NOT a broadcast medium, I think I have a better shot at getting at the story behind the story.

For my purposes, Twitter does three things very well: organizing people, collecting data and doing a quick temperature check.


The 20th century still has such a hold on many of us that we find it hard to give up certain broadcast assumptions—that your goals should be to reach as many people as possible and to drive the conversation.

So, most stories about organizing people with Twitter focus on large numbers—10,000 protesters showing up in a square in Moldova, even if later reports question just how much of a role Twitter or SMS texting or even the government itself played in the demonstration.

My goal is not as revolutionary, nor does it require as many people. I want to develop an independent editorial voice to shine more light on global health and development—both as issues and as industries.

Given the tumult in the news business these days, there is a lot we still do not understand about how to make such an enterprise sustainable. But I suspect there are enough people out there who are interested—and who have some good ideas and experience on how to get things done—that we might be able to figure it out eventually.

In the meantime, I am trying to develop a kind of network for global health news through Twitter, my email contact list and the people on my own and other global health blogs.


We have only begun to explore what is possible with structured data. I predict this area will explode with possibilities once it no longer takes a lot of computer programming skill and expertise to do this right.

For now, most of what I am collecting on Twitter are links—still very 20th century.

Often these are bits of information that do not necessarily relate to each other. Typically I look for links that deal with new models for delivering and sustaining news, that get beyond advocacy in global health and that grapple with some of the ethical dilemmas of how we tell stories, while trying to make money, working against deadlines and across cultures.

One of the most practical uses of Twitter for non-programmers is to figure out whether they should jump to another session at a conference. Check the twitterstream for a conference #hashtag to see which panel discussion looks most interesting and jump ship if yours isn’t meeting your needs. Likewise, let others know if the panel you’re listening to is really interesting.

Notice with conference #hashtags, we’re often talking about small groups with very concrete pieces of information. Indeed, the short messages often can only be understood by those who are already on site. Further, deeper reflection comes later—and is probably based on more research, phone calls, better data.

One of the best examples of collecting concrete data from lots of people is the #votereport project.

#Votereport was a Twitter project in which US voters were encouraged to tweet their voting experience last November 4. Because the predictions were of massive voter turnout, the goal was to see where the lines might be long and where newly registered voters might be encountering problems. Voters were asked to provide three pieces of information: their zip code, the length of the line and whether they had a good or bad experience. If bad (meaning they were turned away), then they gave more details about why.

The brilliant thing was that organizers then were able to put those folks who were turned away in touch with election protection lawyers in real time to see if their legal-electoral issues could be resolved before the voting booths closed.

The big picture issue was maintaining the integrity of the voting process. But the structured data that folks were asked to provide was easy to give and the connection with the larger point was easy to understand.

Eventually I think we will see more projects like #votereport adapted to global health.

But input from large numbers of people will not always be required.

Check out Frontline SMS for one example of what’s possible when you adapt text messaging tools for humanitarian work. I have also wondered if it would be possible to adapt something similar for ensuring the integrity of a country’s supply chain of medicine?


There’s a concept in biology called proprioception. That’s the body’s own awareness of itself in the environment. Because it goes on in the background, we don’t have to give conscious thought to keeping our balance when we decide to run for the bus.

I use Twitter as a kind of proprioception tool for health journalism. Another way to think about it is to use the phrase “situational awareness,” as developed by military strategists and later appropriated by folks in business.

To give just one example, when I tweeted about grappling with what to call the new human swine flu in my own news articles, I learned that several other health journalists I respect were dealing with similar issues. And indeed, that struggle later became the subject of official pronouncements from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, as well as long-form news articles by others who are not in my Tweetstream but who I read on the Internet and in hardcopy.

There are only so many hours in the day and only so many minutes I want to devote to Twitter. So my Twitter philosophy is to keep the number of tweets low and to follow only those who also keep their tweets low. If you pick the people you follow right, you will get a much more manageable stream.

I aggressively unfollow people who tweet too much. No matter how good they are, they drown out the others. And messages from high-volume tweeters still get into my tweetstream if the people I follow find them particularly important.

I unfollow people who retweet links without checking them out first.

I don’t mind following someone for a while and then unfollowing them only to refollow them later as my needs change.

If you find you have to follow someone who tweets a lot, follow them through an RSS feed or one of the programs (Tweetdeck, Twhirl, etc) that allow you to segregate their stream from your low-volume crowd. For now, I still access Twitter through the web because I am trying to keep the volume low, not increase it.

I often do not follow my friends if they tweet a lot because we are already on Facebook, I read their blog or we are in constant email contact.

I do not read every tweet. I do not reply to every @message. If you adopt a "river of news" approach to Twitter (similar to the one many of us have had to use with RSS feeds), the stream is much more manageable.

In essence, I think of the people I follow as my filter, a way of getting a sense of important ideas but NOT as a way of getting first-hand information. We are already flooded with facts (not to mention half-truths and outright lies). What we need are better filters.

As in so much of life, you have to take active steps if you really want to understand what is going on as opposed to just being distracted.

If you want to follow me on Twitter, I'm @cgorman.

Related Posts:
Wanted: A Social Network for Global Health News
Sharing and Global Health Blogging

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