Twitter for journalists: beyond gathering and distributing content

is a Senior Producer for BBC World Service

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Twitter has just celebrated its fifth birthday. As the most immediate and ephemeral of the social networks, it's becoming clear that it presents opportunities beyond newsgathering and distributing content.

Journalists are experimenting with ways to show the context in which Twitter reflects events around the world. This has been particularly true of recent events in the Middle East, where different organisations have approached it in different ways.

During the past few months, the BBC World Service - @bbcworldservice - has been creating Twitter lists (above and left) which follow journalists, bloggers, protestors and government sources. These are primarily a resource for BBC journalists but, as they are public-facing, other Twitter users can follow them too.

While this is not particularly radical, it is something different for the BBC. For the first time, the BBC is curating third-party content on a third-party site - and this presents real challenges.

The lists need to be seen as part of BBC journalism; representing all sides of the situation. In the recent context that's difficult since social media has been mainly the preserve of the protestors. No wonder I heard my colleague sigh: "I wish the Bahraini prime minister was on Twitter."

Al Jazeera's Twitter Dashboard (above) is an interesting take on how to bring an editorialised view to the content on Twitter. If you search for any of the popular hashtags on Twitter, you will be swamped by a sea of tweets. By stepping back and showing the quantity of tweets for each search term, it is easier to understand the volumes of activity for these terms at a glance.

The Guardian (above) chose to locate tweets geographically, in its quest to interpret how social media is affecting the entire region. While it is harder to get a sense of the number of tweets, unlike the Al Jazeera dashboard it does not limit itself to four countries. It is, however, heavily curated, much - like the BBC World Service lists - representing the views of hand-selected journalists, bloggers and experts.

Is it even the place of media organisations to be interpreting social media? Or is the best way to experience it to immerse yourself in it? Hypercities Egypt (above), a project of UCLA's Digital Humanities Centre, allows users to watch tweets about the Egyptian revolution in real time, placed on a map. It even allows you to go back to 30 January and watch all over again.

Twitter is encouraging developers to create tools that are more than simple posting and reading timelines, so expect to see even more creative ways of interpreting tweets in future.

Abigail Sawyer is a Senior Producer, BBC World Service

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