Posts Tagged ‘ history ’

Tweets have more historial value than you might think

If every communications platform got judged by the standard we imposed on Twitter, they’d all be rendered trivial.

Newsprint would just be a forum for gossip and sleazy scandal. Projectors would just be the vehicle for brain-dead dialogue and needless explosions. Telephones would just be a conduit for endless teenage chatter on the superficial.

All those mediums get used for such trivial purposes. A lot. It doesn’t make the medium itself trivial. Instead we recognize all the groundbreaking journalism, innovative films and meaningful conversations that are facilitated as a result.

Twitter too often doesn’t get that appreciation. Because it’s used so often to broadcast meaningless minutia, the general public renders it silly before they stop to see all the benefits of good tweets.

And there’s plenty of good. Twitter is it the most effective way to share links and information with colleagues. It is unrivaled in delivering instant reactions to breaking news. It establishes a direct connection between public figures and their fans that bypasses all the old filters. Even the worst cases of narcissism it inspires can have value as pure entertainment.

Given Twitter’s often under-appreciated status in the public sphere, it’s nice to see our government recognizing its potential. The National Archives announced last month that it will start saving each and every tweet sent from a public account (those with privacy settings won’t be gathered) and preserved for posterity. It’s the type of thing that has inspired instant snickering. Even my iMedia class, which has produced some outstanding research presentations on the value of social media marketing, reacted to the news with many a smirk.

But block out the mundane quality of boring tweets and take the macro view for a moment. When in history have we ever had a larger collection of public views, opinions, thoughts and feelings all recorded? Sociologists and historians no longer have to extrapolate from anecdotal evidence on how certain publics reacted to critical events. There’s a wealth of primary source data that is easily searchable. It doesn’t represent all of society, to be sure, but for certain demographics it provides the kind of in-depth look into our culture and collective pulse to a degree expensive surveys only hoped to reach. That group even includes prominent political figures. What scholar wouldn’t want to preserve their reactions to critical events in the country’s history?

Don’t discount Twitter’s potential for political change either. The protests in Iran last year organized through Twitter are the most prominent example, but you don’t have to go across the world to see an impact. Now that tweets show up in real-time  search engine results, they have the potential to instantly shape what information (or misinformation) is spread. A research paper on how this may have been a crucial factor in Scott Brown’s upset victory in this year’s Massachusetts Senate race was presented at last week’s WWW2010 Conference in Raleigh. Of all the papers from researchers across the globe featured at the that conference, it was the one Word Wide Web Founder Tim Berners-Lee immediately cited when asked what study most interested him.

Of course this post  comes to you from an unabashed Twitter fan since 2008 who now has two accounts, one for my professional interests and one for personal interests. Am I overselling the medium? Are there ways that Twitter falls far short of other mass communications platforms?

Finding a nation off the beaten path

Beyond its namesake canal, Panama isn’t a country that typically generates much interest among the American public. It doesn’t have the glamor tourist destinations and cultural touchstones of western Europe, nor the branded image of adventure associated with Africa and parts of Asia.

But those who overlook this gem of a country are missing out. Among the many great lessons I’ve learned on this service/education trip is that you don’t have to follow the tourist template to of name-brand destinations to have a truly memorable international experience.

The nature of the project raising awareness and support for treating OI has allowed for an immersive tour of the country without sacrificing any work time. At this point we’ve interviewed more than a dozen OI patients, doctors and volunteers on location where they live and work. Those interview sites have stretched from the pacific beaches and resort-like settings of Panama’s western half to the highly modern metropolis of Panama City to the jungles of eastern Panama to the colorful Caribbean coast.

Along the way we’ve passed through historical districts, sandy beaches, impoverished slums, thick forests, majestic mountains and sweeping farmland. We’ve sampled several types of authentic cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’ve learned of Panama’s history as a nation and its altogether unique mix of American, French and Spanish cultural influences. We’ve seen rainbows over the jungle, sunrises over the Pacific (yes, it’s geographically possible, check out a map if you don’t believe me) and skyscrapers over the harbor.

It all adds up to a country that can’t be defined by just a few of its parts. Outside of the canal, there are no internationally recognized landmarks, yet drive 30 minutes in any direction and a new discovery invokes surprise. Even the canal never fails to impress despite its well-known status. The engineering marvel changes elevation multiple times, requiring a complex system of locks that make navigation a tight squeeze — so tight, in fact, that ships going through must surrender the wheel to a Panamanian captain for the duration of the trip. That doesn’t stop the ships from coming and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to pass through the channel. Drive through the city on any given moment and there’s a parade of giant tankers and cargo ships lined up along the ocean awaiting passage.

This trip is by no means a vacation, with 12-hour work days the norm. But I can think of few better ways to authentically experience a country than by interacting with its natives in an open-ended format. The foundation we’re working with has been our guide through areas often too remote or unfamiliar for the average tourist to enjoy. It’s unnerving at times, a bit awkward at others. But after the initial culture shocks comes a deep appreciation for a country I hope to return to again some day, and one that deserves a greater profile

among the international community.