Andy Carvin is a pioneer in online organizing, digital journalism and social media. He’s currently “senior strategist” at NPR, helping the radio network develop their digital strategies. For the past month, he’s been one of the most interesting people to follow on Twitter, as he’s been aggregating and curating many streams of information about the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. I caught up with him today, chatting via Skype as he continued to tweet updates on the situation in Egypt. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, which took place between 3-4pm today (February 4, 2011.)
Ethan Zuckerman: Hey Andy. How are you?
Andy Carvin: Not too bad; how about yourself?
Ethan Zuckerman: Doing fine. Quiet Friday, working on too many things at once. The usual.
Andy Carvin: I can relate.
Ethan Zuckerman: Let’s talk Twitter. You’ve been on fire the past week or so
Andy Carvin: Literally and figuratively, it seems sometimes.
Ethan Zuckerman: I just ran analytics, and you’re averaging 400 tweets a day so far this month.
Andy Carvin: Jesus. Yeah, I saw I’d done something like 1800 in the last week.
Ethan Zuckerman: What’s motivated you to follow the Egypt protests in real time like this?
Andy Carvin: I really saw it as a continuation of my Twitter and Storify coverage of Tunisia, which was equally manic on my part…. Given the time I’ve spent in Tunisia, the number of people I know there, and my own experiences with the regime got me following it a few days after Bouazizi set himself on fire. And for better or worse it appears I was one of the first people to come up with the phrase Jasmine Revolution.
Ethan Zuckerman: With Tunisia, I know you were motivated in part by the lack of the attention the story was getting. Was Tunisia coverage a way of trying to get NPR to give the story more attention? Or were you trying to reach the broader audience?
Andy Carvin: That was part of it… Tunisia is so rarely covered by any mainstream media, and yet for several weeks I saw twitter and FB lighting up with one protest after another. And once things started getting violent, around the time of the Kasserine massacre, I really started to try and get my NPR colleagues following along. And that’s about the time I decided to create a Storify collection on it, since I hadn’t seen anyone else do one. That was somewhere around Monday of the final week of protests.
Ethan Zuckerman: Did your coverage of Kasserine and the broader Tunisia story help influence NPR’s coverage, directly or indirectly?
Andy Carvin: More indirectly than anything else. I helped turn our news bloggers onto it, perhaps, and our foreign desk was probably observing as well. When I first contacted them that Wednesday, they were already booking tix to get at least one of our reporters there Thursday morning.
Ethan Zuckerman: So motivation was personal passion as much as trying to shift coverage within NPR? And an opportunity to see how Twitter and Storify can be useful for this sort of coverage?
Andy Carvin: Yes, all of the above. I didn’t exactly have to shift the coverage – I knew they were pulling things together to get someone there – but in the meantime I felt I could fill in the blanks online, especially with all of my contacts there. I’d also tried Storify a couple times. The first – about protests in Belarus – was just kicking the tires. I then scrambled to make one the weekend Gabby Giffords was shot, and that experience made me decide the next day to tackle Tunisia in the same way. I’d been tweeting about it on and off for a few weeks but I felt Storify could at least let me tell a narrative arc of what was going on, from the time Bouazizi set himself on fire, to ultimately, Ben Ali fleeing the country.
Ethan Zuckerman: Talk a bit about your history with Tunisia. Why are your contacts so strong there?
Andy Carvin: I visited Tunisia in 2004 and 2005 as part of my involvement in the World Summit on the Information Society. I took part in the planning meetings, one of which was held near Hammamet, and then participated in the summit itself in Tunis. I also met up with a Tunisian blogger afterwards and backpacked across the country with him.
Ethan Zuckerman: You’ve mentioned difficulties being followed in Tunis – was that on both visits, or just after the main WSIS summit?
Andy Carvin: Both visits. When I was in Hammamet, I recall sitting around with colleagues from around the world, including Tunisians, at an outdoor bar. About 15 feet from us, two undercover police sat there, pretending to read newspapers, but took notes on us the whole time. Then when we went backpacking in late ’05, we were constantly pulled over at checkpoints, and we got the distinct feeling they knew we were coming. At one point in Tataouine, we met up with a friend of the blogger’s family, and when we went out to tour some sights, he was grabbed by police and tossed into a van for associating with me. If my friend hadn’t known a lot about Tunisian constitutional law, he might’ve been taken to jail, because my friend managed to talk the police into letting him go after about 30-40 minutes.
Ethan Zuckerman: Storify is featuring your Tunisia story prominently. Do you think NPR is likely to use the platform to provide background on stories in the future as you’ve done around Sidi Bouzid?
Andy Carvin: We’ll see. It’s still in beta and invite only, and I’m always interested in testing out new curation platforms. On the whole it went well, and I met up with them in San Francisco afterwards to talk about what worked and what didn’t… Having said all that, I started a Storify for Egypt and gave up in a matter of minutes. For whatever reason I felt competely overloaded by info, so I decided to concentrate on Twitter in real-time, rather than doing a mediocre job at both.
Ethan Zuckerman: Your Twitter coverage has been a mix of retweets of reporters on the ground, Egyptian civilians on the ground and accounts from Al Jazeera. is the goal to get all those sources in the same place? To add a layer of analysis? To promote voices to a wider audience?
Andy Carvin: Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out what my goal is. It’s been evolving as the week has gone on…. When I first started, I was just casually retweeting stuff from sources I found interesting…. But as things intensified, I basically decided to drop everything I was working on and focus on capturing as much as possible regarding what was going on there…. As the week went on, I found myself putting in 12-15 hour days, getting up really early to catch up on what’d happened overnight, keeping at it til past midnight, then starting again the next morning. The only time I really took breaks was when I wanted to spend time with my family. Kids still have to be fed and put to bed, of course. :-) But as to why, I don’t know. I’ve live-blogged events for years; same thing with live-tweeting, going back to ’07. I’ve always felt I was pretty good at it, and since I know a decent amount about the region and know many bloggers there, it just kinda fell into place and happened. I got into the zone and haven’t been able to stop.
Ethan Zuckerman: Is NPR supportive of the experiment? Do they see value in what you’re doing in terms of their larger project, brand, reporting, etc?
Andy Carvin: Definitely. NPR has always been very encouraging with me to try new platforms, new methods of journalism, and follow the story wherever it takes me. Even though I’m not technically a reporter, I still know how to weave a decent story, and my bosses have always encouraged me to get out there and just do stuff. We don’t necessarily have official 20% time like Google does, but in practice I try to make it work that way. Though with Tunisia and Egypt it’s been closer to 85% time or something. :-)
Ethan Zuckerman: There’s something very addictive about following a story tweet by tweet. I noticed that several people covered the Iran protests much as you’ve been doing here. What do you think the balance is between utility – you’ve been a huge resource for people following the story – and personal practice – you’re doing this because it’s addictive, because it’s a way to be part of the story without being there?
Andy Carvin: I wouldn’t necessarily focus on the addiction aspect – I know I have a bit of a problem (grin). Rather, I look at it as something I’m good at, enjoy doing and find important in the grand scheme of things. We don’t always get the best foreign coverage in the US, and Twitter is full of smart people on the ground in so many places. For whatever reason, over the last four years I’ve developed a modest, but loyal Twitter following who are eager to help me. I did a lot of tweeting during #iranelection as well, so in many ways that helped prepare me for this, as did my live-tweeting during the ’08 presidential race. But it’s not just a means to get a lot of tweets out there. I see curation as a serious form of narrative – one that we’re just beginning to recognize as something or another. I’m still not sure if it’s more art than journalism, or social responsibility for that matter, but I’ve discovered that it’s medium that I’m at home in. And if I can help inform people in the process, so much the better.
Ethan Zuckerman: Are other folks doing similar curation work during the Tunisia and Egypt protests?
Andy Carvin: There’s a great guy in Greece named @asteris – he’s a Global Voices contributor – who’s been using Storify for Egypt. One reason I didn’t feel as compelled to do it myself was because he was already well ahead of me, so I figured we could just divide and conquer, having me stick to twitter in the process…. Meanwhile, the most amazing curating of all during Tunisia was Nawaat’s posterous blog. They literally had hundreds, if not thousands, of media artifacts collected there – text, video, audio, photo, etc. But it was more of a full-blown archive than anything else, and I figured for a non-Tunisian audience, it would make more sense to use storify to tell an actual story: offering background on Tunisia, Ben Ali, then to Bouazizi’s suicide, to it expanding to critical mass and eventual revolution. So the Nawaat archive was a major resource for me.
Ethan Zuckerman: I’ve noticed that, in a fast moving story like the Egyptian protests, information can echo for some time – current tweets can refer to events that took place hours ago. Are you seeing this? Are there other problems – with the tech or with usage of the tech – that you’re seeing in using Twitter to aggregate?
Andy Carvin: Yes, I’m definitely seeing this, and I think it happens for several reasons. For one thing, Twitter can echo in the sense that it’s loud at first then reverberates for a while. So something one person might’ve posted 12 hours ago gets retweeted by someone who’s just checking twitter for the first time, causing it to propagate further. Also, it’s just the reality of media coverage that sometimes they report stuff repeatedly. I’ve seen certain shots or interviews on CNN, Al Jazeera, etc, again and again all week – so much so that I’ve gotten good at recognizing what’s old and what’s not. But on a few times even I ended up tweeting something I thought was current but it turns out was just a replay of six hours earlier. But for whatever reason, Twitter seems to self-correct, and people generally point out to me that I’m behind on something.
Ethan Zuckerman: You mentioned the curation Nawaat – major figures in the Tunisian independent media space, and in the Tunisian opposition – did with their Posterous blog: good evidence that movement leaders and journalists are taking curation seriously. You’re doing this work, at least in part, as a journalist. Do you see this form or real-time aggregation and curation as a journalistic function? One that interested individuals will end up engaging in? Some mix of the two?
Andy Carvin: I think you could use these methods for whatever your goals are. For me, I wanted to tell the story of Tunisia at an extraordinary moment in time, and capture as much personal media as possible from people living through it. That’s definitely a mix of storytelling and journalism, though I’m sure there are still plenty of people who are skeptical that social media curation is an actual form of journalism. But let’s say if I worked for an advocacy org – I could see these same tools being used for whatever cause I support. Imagine using Storify to tell the story of a Prisoner of Conscience, for example. Even though Storify was created with journalism in mind, curation goes well beyond journalism. It’s all storytelling, whether you put your own perspective into it or not.
Ethan Zuckerman: What’s different in the picture you’re getting from curating a variety of voices from the view of the events in Tunisia and Egypt you’re getting from more traditional journalistic sources – NPR, AJE, CNN?
Andy Carvin: Well, US news orgs are often US centric in the sense that they tell stories from the perspective of the US and its geopolitical interests. So it’s no surprise that a lot of US news coverage is talking about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, the potential impact on Israel and other regional partners, etc. That’s totally understandable they’re doing that. But I’m a big believer in getting actual people on the ground telling their story as they participate in the event, and that can give a different perspective. News orgs in any given country will have a perspective based on their national culture and interests, but that won’t always match the perspective of the blogger getting arrested in Tunis or the young woman going to Tahrir because she believes in participatory democracy. Those types of stories can get lost in the big-picture, MSM coverage.
Ethan Zuckerman: Can you talk a bit about the role of language in covering these events? Much of what’s coming from Egypt is in Arabic, while the dialog around Tunisia has been in Arabic and French. How is translation being handled on Twitter – what’s working and what should we be doing better?
Andy Carvin: It’s being handled in a number of ways. I’ve seen people using tools like Curated.by to collect tweets and translate them, for example. Meanwhile, there are people like Al Jazeera’s Dima Khatib who is a polyglot, so she often writes her tweets in multiple languages or translates other tweets. I’ve been using Google’s translation tools as well as tweetdeck’s, and they generally give me a decent idea of what something is about. But if I have something that’s not text: a photo, a video clip, etc – that needs translation, I share it on Twitter and ask for help. And every single time I’ve done this, multiple people have responded and helped. So people are really generous in assisting me. And with multiple people doing it, it helps me cross-reference the translations for potential mistakes or nuances.
Ethan Zuckerman: Have you been using the MT plugin that Danny O’Brien developed as a Greasemonkey script? It puts a translate button on each tweet – I’ve found it indispensible, though Google’s MT doesn’t always work for me.
Andy Carvin: You know, I had it installed at some point and it crashed, and I never got to reinstalling it. Probably should take another crack at it.
Ethan Zuckerman: We’ve stayed away from the “twitter revolution” and social media as source for social change meme thus far. Any thoughts on how your experience diving deep into these tools has shaped your thinking on the significance of social media in organizing, inspiring, motivating participation in these protests? Or is the the significance more about communicating these events to the wider world?
Andy Carvin: Yeah, I’m really torn on this. On the one hand, I’m no cyber-utopian. I have no illusion that regimes are going to use social media for their own self interest, as we saw so vividly in Iran. But I think it goes both ways – clearly these dissidents and protesters see social media as a way of asserting their own self-interests as well. Last week I asked a Tunisian colleague if the revolution would’ve succeeded without social media. She said it probably would have eventually, but would have taken a hell of a lot longer and would’ve been much bloodier. Maybe she’s right; I honestly don’t know. But what I do see happening here, first in Tunisia and then in Cairo, that there are a critical mass of people there who believe that social media can help their causes. They obviously have their own offline networks that they’re working, but social media is helping them grease the wheels, amplify things inside and outside the country, capture bad acts by the regimes on their camera phones, etc. Essentially, they’ve reached a critical mass of people who don’t differentiate their online lives from their offline lives any more. So for them, these tools have been vital. For others, perhaps not, but clearly it’s playing some kind of role.
Ethan Zuckerman: I think the observation that these tools are so integrated into people’s lives that it’s hard to distinguish between offline and online is a key observation. I also think there’s a need to bring traditional media into this equation – it seems that social media had a big effect in bringing events in Tunisia to AJ and other networks, especially as AJ wasn’t able to report from the ground.
Andy Carvin: Absolutely. This is something that really hit home during the Boxing Day Tsunami. Most news outlets weren’t prepared for it; they didn’t have people in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, etc. But there were just enough people on the ground there who mobilized and began posting their own footage via SMS, MMS, Flickr, etc. I think that was an a-ha moment – not unlike the way the London underground bombing was an a-ha moment for the BBC, given how many people captured footage on their phones.
Ethan Zuckerman: I should let you get back to tweeting. Any predictions? On Mubarak’s departure, on future unrest in other parts of the world, or on whether we’re going to see news orgs offering Twitter curation in the future? (I guess the real-time blogging on Guardian, AJ and NYTimes is already somewhat similar…)
Andy Carvin: My prognostication of Tunisia turned out to be pretty accurate, but I’ve been pretty stumped on Egypt…. When I got together with my Tunisian colleague two weeks ago, we talked about the potential for something similar in Egypt, and I said if it were to happen, it’d be a bloody mess a la Tiananmen. Then as people started to protest and I started to realize their army is largely made up of conscripts, I started to feel they’d pull it off in a similar Tunisia did. Now I’m not sure. They’ve had some huge rallies all over the country, everything has ground to a halt; there’s been violence but it hasn’t been on a Tiananmen scale; and for the moment Mubarak is still at his house. So right now I’m not sure how this’ll play out.
As for this playing out elsewhere, we’re already seeing effects in Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, etc. Whether any of them go all the way remains to be seen. But it’s still extraordinary that the literal flame of a person setting himself ablaze in protest has lit a flame of revolt across the Arab world….
And yes, I fully expect this curation trend to continue, whether it’s thru liveblogging, Twitter, Storify or something else new. I mean, if you think of the word media, it literally means middle – we’re in the middle, with the story on the one hand and the public on the other. With social media now, it’s easy to do end runs around MSM if one chooses, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s an industry of reporters who are amazing storytellers. Online curation is quickly becoming a new way for them to tell the story. They’re just not necessarily producing all the raw materials anymore.
Ethan Zuckerman: Thanks for your time.
Andy Carvin: Thanks, I appreciate it. This has been fun!