Perfecting the art of online conversation

windstormOn November 27, hurricane force winds caused mayhem right across Southern Alberta. My daughter in Calgary called to tell me a huge tree had blown down right across our front yard (see image, right). Should she call 911? Clearly the answer was no. As far as we could tell, no one was under it. Next my son called from Lethbridge. A huge grassfire was racing towards his house on the west edge of the city (image below). Unable to get anything from municipal or provincial websites, he asked me to see what I could find and text him with info. It's nice to hear from both children in one day, but…

TV and radio, it seems, didn't have much to offer regarding these events. Neither did government websites. What did work really well, though, was Twitter.

fire2Lethbridge firefighting services began tweeting exactly what was happening: what direction the fire was heading in, who was being evacuated, and what residents should be doing. This, added to the tweets of ordinary citizens living in and around the affected area, provided the most comprehensive and timely picture of the disaster. In Calgary, Twitter told of blocked roads, fallen trees and flying debris in far more detail than broadcast media.

I've been an active Twitter user for several years now, and continue to be amazed by the breadth and wealth of news and information it provides. I am able to follow updates from every research area and general interest of mine — from politics to artificial intelligence. When I attend a conference, I always tweet the highlights and appreciate others who do the same. I'm astonished when an event doesn't announce a hashtag to keep us all in synch.

Twitter is a powerful tool for mass communication. Look at how it has been used to bring about democracy in the Arab Spring, or been abused by rioters in the UK. As I write this, the Calgary police have just appealed for people to stop tweeting the location of check stops, thereby keeping drunk drivers on the road, a problem especially bad at this time of year. Use and abuse.

If I were forced to give up all my social media, Twitter would be the last one to go.

With all this in mind, and what I see as overwhelming evidence of the social benefits it offers, it comes as a shock to me that so many people still dismiss Twitter as meaningless nonsense. Sure, people can and do tweet trivia, but you only see those tweets if you choose to follow those people. I've never seen nonsense from NASA, CERN, or a host of others I follow.

twitterThe truth is, every kind of discussion occurs on Twitter. It is the fastest forum available for sharing thoughts, connecting with like-minded individuals and, increasingly, for locating resources. A completely new branch of analytics is opening up, known as sentiment analysis. In large part, it uses Twitter data to spot patterns and show how the public is thinking. It can predict the stock market, the success or failure of brands and the fortunes of politicians. Before long, not tweeting will be likened to not voting, and we all know we should vote. Right? 

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