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Posted 28 November, 2011 by Alix Dunn

Local Impact of Global Twitter Networks

As violence once again flares up in Cairo, Andy Carvin’s curation of information cascades gushing from the Arab Spring has been a useful filtering tool for those in the west yearning for up-to-the-minute, reliable information. Recently, however, his digital influence and commitment to sorting information have also filled a coordination need on the ground.

As Carvin’s Twitter feed demonstrates, becoming an influencer on Twitter clearly makes it possible to broadcast information to large numbers, which, when coupled with smart tagging and grouping of needs and resources can also directly affect events on the ground. This week, despite all of the misinformation surrounding recent clashes in Cairo, Carvin’s attention to the @TahrirSupplies feed has made it possible for him steer information about needs and resources using his network of trusted Tweeps.

As Twitter use develops strategically into networks that manage information flows, the focused curation of information cascade becomes an informal, and highly effective, system of crisis response. As is the case in Egypt, the months and months that @acarvin has spent developing trusted networks has paid off on the ground.

In this case, Twitter makes it possible for an individual 6000 miles away to contribute to the coordination of crisis response. And while this example shows the potential of social media influence, it also makes clear that influence without intent does not result in impact. The larger an audience a Tweep has – regardless of how the following was won – the more likely they are to continue to expand their audience at faster and faster rates. Zeynep Tuyfecki discusses this characteristic — referred to as preferential attachment — in the context of an analysis of Wael Ghonim’s Twitter feed.

And while preferential attachment is what provides Twitter users like Carvin with the capacity to use networks for large-scale coordination, it also means that a critical mass of influence can only be wielded by a privileged few. And that privileged few might not, as Carvin was this week, be eager to take the time or effort necessary to support on-the-ground change.

5 thoughts on “Local Impact of Global Twitter Networks”

[…] on the nature of this intervention.  Adrija Bose also wrote on the episode at FirstPost, as did Alix Dunn at the Engine Room. I will not join that debate directly here, but the incident provides the […]

[…] on the nature of this intervention.  Adrija Bose also wrote on the episode at FirstPost, as did Alix Dunn at the Engine Room. I will not join that debate directly here, but the incident provides the […]

[…] the nature of this intervention.  Adrija Bose also wrote on the episode at FirstPost, as did Alix Dunn at the Engine Room. I will not join that debate directly here, but the incident provides the […]

Then Andy Carvin has too much power without accountability, and you need to think about the ramifications of that.

It’s also not clear that in fact only his remote-control Red Cross work saved the day. Maybe it did. Maybe it was a necessary duplication to others’ work on the scene.

But there are any number of worrisome factors to the enormous power that these Twitter influences gain with their one-to-many broadcasting use of Twitter. Leaving aside the problem of pollution of the stream with malignant disinformers, which presumably a person like Carvin eventually filters out, there is still the problem of TMI and human limitations and inevitable bias. Given the urgency of the cause, given the enormity of the need; given the power to influence, why is Andy Carvin only one? Why isn’t he in a tag team? Why doesn’t he *share power*?

He is not reporting the news because he’s not on the ground. He’s curating the news and has built up a certain audience of trust based on the notion that he curates, but doesn’t try to impose his own view on the situation (in theory, anyway). If he begins to intervene actually in the scene, he’s not a journalist or a curator but a participant. There’s nothing wrong with being a human rights worker or aid worker. But such people often work more effectively when they are also not burdened with having to give bursts of broadcasts every few minutes about their activities.

Alix Dunn says:

Thank you for this comment Catherine. I will try my best to respond to each of your points.

1. To your point about Carvin’s power without accountability, that his power stems from the number of people that follow him and interact with him on Twitter, I would argue that the social system of social media can trim his wings if it so chooses. Accountability to a community and not a single individual or institution is, I think, a healthy mechanism albeit one with clear potential for flaws.

2. I do not believe that Carvin “saved the day” but I think the fact that @TahrirSupplies directly credited him for his support is meaningful. And the fact that he was able to support a large scale logistical operation from DC using a free social tool is worth noting.

3. As for not sharing power, we should ask Carvin if he has considered this, but by virtue of the fact that the medium he has chosen is social, he acts as an individual. His twitter feed is peppered with pictures of his family and he tweets to let followers know when he is logging off for the evening. I do not think it is his responsibility to develop power sharing, and I would argue that he has done an excellent job of cauterizing the spread of rumors by not just passing on information, but by asking questions. And I think you make an excellent point about the potential problem of too much information. I follow Carvin on Twitter and my feed is sometimes held captive of his profuse activity. But as he has pointed out to followers who have complained of this, they have options to stop following him or to move his feed to a search column in something like TweetDeck.

4. As for your comment about him not being a journalist because he is not on the ground, I disagree. Reporters updating us about events in Homs and Damascus are reporting from Beirut and Ankara. And many of these reporters are using YouTube videos as centerpieces of their documentation. That is not to say that Carvin is a reporter per se, but that his work as a curator is no less important because he works remotely.

5. I agree that we can’t expect aid workers to be rapid fire tweeting when they are working on the ground, but the power of sharing information to leverage large networks is increasingly an important part of large-scale coordination. This big picture is an important, if meta, part of the process.

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