Separating signal from noise on Twitter

Results of a Twitter search on earthquake near:"Los Angeles" within:15mi

By now a lot of people in the media have discovered how to use Twitter as a promotional tool, judging from the growing number of auto-generated messages populating (polluting?) the Tweetstream.

But I think relatively few journalists are actually listening to what the community is saying. Which is a shame, because this is our audience talking. And the conversation is often more transparent, more sincere and more insightful than what you see on news sites’ forums and comment boards.

(I should note that I’m a relative Twitter novice, and I welcome the opportunity to get schooled if I’m totally off base in what I’m about to say.)

Steve Yelvington (who, incidentally, was helming startribune.com when I was an intern there more than a decade ago), describes Twitter this way:

It’s like a big caffeine party. Everybody’s talking at once. Really fast.

But you have magic ears.

You only hear the people you want to listen to, and the people who are saying something directly to you.

That is Twitter’s great promise, but it’s also where I think the microblogging behemoth comes up short. Because two things happen when you’re listening only to the people you want to hear:

  • They say a lot of things you don’t care about.
  • You miss all the good stuff they’re not talking about.

So, how can journalists separate the useful stuff from the chatter on Twitter? There are some technological answers to this question. Here are a few I’ve found:

  • Twitter advanced search: Sure, everybody knows about Twitter search, but the advanced search options can be a pretty effective way to cut through the noise. For a simple example, try this: earthquake near:”Los Angeles” within:15mi (The geographic search makes use of the place name that users set in their profiles as a geotag for each of their tweets. Imperfect, but it’s a start.)
  • TwitScoop: See what’s trending in real time. In the future, I imagine a local version of this (limited to tweets in a particular geographic area) on a big display on the wall of every newsroom.
  • TweetDeck: A beautiful app (built with Adobe Air, for good compatibility karma) that lets you follow multiple subsets of the tweetstream (your replies, custom searches, etc.) in real time. If you cover a beat, why not set up a few custom searches on the topics you follow and see what people are saying?

And then there are some things I wish I could do with Twitter that, as far as I know, aren’t possible yet. Here’s this journalist’s wish list for Twitter and third-party developers:

  • Better geographic tools, so it’s easier for tweeters to update their location and for searchers to filter geographically. Community news sites could benefit from this.
  • The ability to create running searches across a subset of Twitter users. Let’s say you cover technology and are following a few key sources and want to know whenever one of your sources posts about Yahoo. There might be a tool that enables this, and if so, maybe somebody can enlighten me.
  • The ability to find conversations that mention a particular URL. Seems like it would be useful (and not just for ego purposes) to know what people are saying about the content you create. Twitturly does a good job of showing which URLs are most popular overall, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t let you specify a URL to examine.

So, what are your techniques for separating signal from noise on Twitter? And while you’re at it, what would you add to the wish list?

Incidentally, if you’re new to the Twitter thing, here are some good posts to get you going. And for a contrarian point of view on the whole signal-to-noise thing, check out Scoble. (Or, maybe he’s mainstream and I’m the contrarian? [Shudder])