Social Searching Part 1 – What’s out there?

Posted: January 25, 2011 in Data Journalism
Tags: , , ,

Journalism involves investigating, digging, looking for things; well, good journalism anyway. The web is the best resources in the world for finding information (not necessarily the right information but a savvy searcher will get something useful). But journalists don’t need just search engines. Google will get you close enough to what you’re looking for as long as you have a good idea what that is. Searching for facts is very different to searching for a story; an idea. Here are some resources for finding something through the online social network engine. I’ve added my own thoughts but please feel free to add your own.

What’s out there:

The most useful site I have found for breaking news and story ideas is Trendsmap. It’s a mash up of Google Maps and the Twitter API and it maps the big trending terms. On the top right is a search box where you start typing the term and a drop down menu will appear. The resultant map is just for that term. The size of the term is somewhat in relation to the rate of mentions but not really that trustworthy for a comparison. It’s good to view the spread but you need to know what term to search for. the home page which you see on the left before any searches are made is a great indicator of the terms and hashtags being used. The best thing is that this is real time. the worst is that it cannot map tweets where not location is given. What is most useful is the grey box to the top right of the map. Once you click on a word a scrolling frame drops down which shows you the tweets using the term from that location in real time. For breaking news like earthquakes, volcanic erupts, plane crashes, etc. this is where you’ll pick it up. There’s an obvious word for the event and it breaks fast. As you’re looking for people and pictures from the location of the event this works much better that search for the hashtag on twitter. Oh, and the grey box will show you the videos and images being sent with tweets. Always have this open on your desktop!

If it’s not an obvious event you want to sell to your editor then try and see what Google Trends brings up. It’s another one of Google’s clever algorithms that aggregates words that are being thrown around on twitter, Facebook and the web and creates a real time countdown. It tries to do them for certain locales like US, UK, Canada and Singapore but there doesn’t tend to be a huge difference between them. The advantage with this is that you can tell your editor there is an immediate interest. Click on the term and you can see what’s being said but be careful with this as it can be misleading. If two separate mediocre stories appear about Madonna (say a song release and then a paparazzi snap of her kissing a minor celebrity), mixed reviews of her song and the photograph could get the term Madonna trending when there’s not really that much interest in either story. Also, reviews tend to have different wordings so the algorithm will pick up the term ‘Madonna’ before ‘domodedovo’ if the traffic for Madonna has mixed content. The volume for the Moscow airport blast may be larger but the news is often retweeted so the content of the tweet is not as variable. Also, as can be seen by the lists right and left, the story itself is spread across two terms: ‘moscow’ and ‘domodedovo’.

In other words, always click on the terms. check out in what context the term is trending and look elsewhere. These are lists and not a count down. You can in no way measure the newsworthiness with this but you can say to your editor there is a lot of interest in this story. On the same page is a list of popular search terms (only for the US sadly) which will sometimes lead you to an interesting story/angle. But be wary of what this is. It is a snapshot of the peaks of interest smeared across the digital community and so has it’s biases and limitations. Tech news will always trend high as it’s rightful place is online. Indian news will always peak when Mumbai is on lunch break. And celebrity gossip and sports results will dominate when the US get online. You have to filter through the noise and use your journalistic mindset to make use of Google’s trending terms.


Thoora is another aggregator of news stories being spread across twitter. This updates quite regularly so it’s good to keep an eye on. Even if you have the story covered this is a good way to see what angle is developing online and which sites is the traffic being driven to. Scroll down and you’ll see the top ten for politics, business, controversy, etc. Click on the story and you get a list of how that story is being covered on the various news sites, twitter stats on how hot the story is and even some tweets. Usually, your institution has it’s own editorial line; decided upon first thing in the morning and that’s the way the story will be covered until the next editorial meeting. So yes, the different angles might not make it into your editor’s ear but if you’re looking at how a news story is being covered (the lazy journalist’s trick of writing a story on the coverage of a story) then this is a good tool. Again, it’s another one of these tools that is based on internet traffic so if the term is trending you’re bound to get hits. Just make sure your top line is sexier and more up-to-date than the top trending headline. I personally have my eyes trained on the ‘Developing Stories’ column to the right. This is where you’ll find the ‘new’ things if you work in a newsroom and have the wires open at all times. The big downside to Thoora is it is totally US biased. But big international stories will be up and internet themed headlines such as hacking and internet security will go up quickly. However, you can’t get away from American dominance of the news.

Digg has had a couple of makeovers and looked near dead for quite a while. However, this was big before the twitter-Facebook era of social networking and you’ll see it’s fossilized remains in the form of digg buttons on news sites under ‘share’. This is the most tech-centric of the news buzz sites. Mashable and Techcrunch stories will appear high up here. However, it is very current and the discussions formed around digg articles can be very insightful. A lot of the times the feedback is critical of news coverage and like the comment rating on YouTube you can see which comments have been given the most thumbs up/down. To dilute the bias the diggs have been categorized. There is now a ‘Hot Topics’ and ‘Top News’ section. These are the ones I keep an eye on. However, unlike the other sites I have listed above this is based on a community which are very tech and US centric. Often the articles posted are quite amusing. This is one for ideas and not necessarily stories. Maybe for an opinion piece or commentary. You can find really great blog posts which the other sites overlook. A lot of the shock-and-awe-of-human-nature type stories appear here. As this is based around a community you do get to listen in on the water-cooler conversations.


  1. […] See part one – Social searching: what’s out there? – at this link […]

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