Social Searching

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 or someone 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!

Google Hot Topics (see below) has gone since I posted this page. Now there is only the ‘Hot Searches’ for the US. Luckily, an equivalent has been added to TrendsMap. If you scroll down you will see  a ‘Breaking Globally’ list which are Twitter words that are beginning to trend. This is not the same as ‘Hot Topics’ as Google seemed to wheedle out this like #mymommasays and other such terms. I’m not sure exactly what the algorithm was made of but I think it linked with RSS feeds so that the top terms also had articles being published (which is what made it so useful). The good part about the TrendsMap list is that it covers all locations however there is an inherent bias within Twitter and the social media world. Languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet such as Korean, Arabic and Mandarin can be input into Twitter but the Twitter trending algorithm cannot read it i.e. and term not written in a language which uses the Roman alphabet cannot trend. Which is why you see things like #iranelection always coming out of Tehran as a trending term because the Iranians know how to use social media. They use this hashtag as a beacon to send out underground campaigns and political dissent. URLs and hashtags have to be in the Roman alphabet, so even if they don’t speak English, Iranians can get a link, picture or video out on this hashtag and anyone can watch it and even read it using Google Translate.

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.

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.

Since publishing this page Thoora has changed it’s online tactics drastically. It has gone the way of a social curation engine. So you build it i.e. you have to find the story first, it will give you no clues. It’s trying to be a mix of Storify and, so it’s a good tool for social media aggregated publishing but it is now obsolete for my intended use. But rather than delete this part of the page I thought I would use this example to highlight the fact that these online services aren’t made to service the social searcher. They are made to make money. So they will change and evolve with the social web market. This is why you need to be committed to this form of story finding. You have no control over these tools and the changes they will go through. This is why I think news organisation need to invest in building bespoke tools themselves. Tools that are not just about publishing but have an interrogating function also.

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.


So you have your story or a big story is developing. Here are some online tools to find out what is the latest being said or coming from the ground. A lot of these do the same things but in different ways and with slightly different outputs. Play around and pick which one suits you best but bear in mind, stories develop differently and at a different pace so switch tools depending on the type of story and the output you’re looking for.

Who has the story?

Twitter is the place to go and get a live search for the hashtag. Often time for a big story you get noise and retweets. When you’re chasing something specific then go toTwitter’s advanced search. I’m not sure why it’s not in a more convenient place on the twitter site itself. This gives you loads more options especially location, people and even language. By far and away the best resource for big breaking events. And if they’re in another language just throw the tweets into Google Translate. The best thing I find is to explore the links to find pictures and video. If it looks good translate the tweets making sure you have the original tweeter and not a retweet. If the location isn’t given (remember, locations they have input themselves are sometimes their hometown and not where they are at time of tweet) scroll through their tweets to look for a foursquare entry. I always copy and paste the tweet and tweeter into a word doc as refinding things on twitter can be a real nightmare for big stories.

My next favourite is Topsy. If you search for a word it’ll include the hashtag. The presentation and navigation are great with hashtags being linked as well as the links to web articles appearing as in Google and not just a constricted url. To look at how much interest is being generated regarding the term you’ve searched there’s a nifty count on the left column. You can search by relevance or the latest and by web, tweets or photos. There’s a category called ‘exerts’ which I imagine is more the business model of this search as I don’t find it particularly useful or logical. What I do find useful is that to add colour to a story you can measure the volume of buzz generated by a term and compare it to another. This works particularly well for sports stories where you want to see which players fans are talking about which their club might buy, etc. The downside is Topsy is not real time so you’ll have to hit ‘search’ to get the latest.

Now we move on to Facebook and Twitter integrated searches in the form of Kurrently. As it’s name suggests it is live but thankfully you can change the stream speed. The benefit of searching Facebook is really to see what YouTube videos people are posting in their status and to a certain extent some sentiment. You can’t contact them as this application does not get past Facebook’s privacy settings. Their status will appear even if they are closed but click on them will lead you not to that part of their profile they allow non-friends to seen but to a search for their name. You gotta match the picture to the profile and try and message them.

The next step up is socialmention.  This has the added benefit of an alert system for those investigative stories but for big breaking news like earthquakes and coups a real time search in your browser is going to be the best tool. There is the option of a web widget but since social content is unfiltered by nature there’s really no use for news agencies. It takes a while to load but it does crawl a magnitude of sites, from news to blogs to social networks. The added information that is most useful are the top keywords and users. It helps gauge what people are referring to and who are the most outspoken. The extra stuff about strength, passion and sentiment aren’t useful. Social sentiment analysis online is nascent and really not trustworthy at this stage.

The next one is icerocket. I like it for its simplicity. Although the name doesn’t make much sense its layout does. There’s a bit of buzz and top searches on the home page but once you search it lays it out like unrolling a carpet. Blogs, twitter, Facebook, videos, news and images. There’s even the option to have it update in time increments. What I like about this is that it puts blogs in the spotlight. The trend is social media, probably for its brevity both in space and time but I don’t think the media industry has explored the humble blog fully as angles and attitudes can be gleamed from people who have a passion to publish rather than post. Again, everything you need is linked. Lovely.

I know Twitter is the big trend because it is so much like a social wires service which is why twitter search tools like Searchtastic have popped up. You can search within your following and expand the links as so many contracted links have no information on the content in the tweet. If you’re a dedicated new media journalist then you’ve nurtured your account to work best for you and this is a nice way to keep tabs. But the best tool by far for a journalist is the option to export the results as an Excel sheet with the expanded urls.

I’m not sure how useful Facebook is as I haven’t found much use for it but a Facebook specific search is Open Book. One strange fact is that you can filter the statuses by male or female. Not sure how you’d use that. The only links are the users and that takes you to the Facebook search. For local news concerning friends of victims or eye witnesses to specific events this may be useful but you’ll have to check out their profile for location.

My latest favourite is Who’s Talkin. Not only is this all encompassing when it comes to searching news, blogs and social media but there’s the Excel export option, an API and even an iGoogle gadget! For refining searches by online medium nothing compares to this. But this is the next level in refining your search as there’s no great general overview page. No quick ‘here’s a bunch of the best updates, posts and videos’ page. This is when you’re looking for a specific angle and the person who has it. If you’re investigating and you’re waiting for someone to mention something specific to your case then check this one out. For big breaking news when you need the latest this will not work as it’s not real time.

And finally, a nifty tool for searching beyond the here and now is SnapBird. Once you’ve found someone saying something interesting you can check back on their tweets that are over 10 days old. It may give you a bit more background to their story or a foursquare post could put them where you need them to be. If you’ve nurtured your twitter account then this will allow you search back through your friends’ tweets as well as your direct messages and favourites. Often times you find an interesting tweet but need to know more on how the tweeter has reached that part of the story. I haven’t had to use this myself but it’s good knowing it’s out there.


The social web is free information but to create useful sources of information you need to filter out the relevant from the noise. My posts so far will help lead you to a story but often times what’s heard through the grapevine can be of really good use. Also, you might want someone in the know to glean more insight or get a nice quote. Here are some tools to help you cultivate social sources:

Cultivating your Social Sources

To find top tweeters by subject matter the easiest port of call is WeFollow. The home page has lists for areas such as music, social media, tech, etc but you can also do a search for terms. This will then take you to a list of ‘Most Influential’ or ‘Most Followers’. The first is the most useful but of course the more followers you have the more likely you are to be retweeted. The good and bad side is that clicking on the user does not take you to their twitter page. Instead you get a further break down of stats including the usual followers, updates and following but quite nicely you’re also presented with other interesting rankings they fall under. One issue I would have is that for the rankings, the information included is bio unless they haven’t entered one. Then it appears to be their latest tweet. I would like both pieces of information, especially since the site does not navigate to the users page.

A site which does and which has the user at heart is followformation. You can add your own category and even just find by city. You can enter your twitter details and with just one click, poof, you’re following. This, like wefollow, is very category based  but they seem to be working on specialities like the Olympics.

Now, if you work in journalism you know that most often journalists turn to the media for information. The term ‘journalist’ always puts a journalist as ease in regards to trust. Social media seems to be changing this paradigm but when you know someone’s job is to report the truth you want to use them as your source. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. So check out Muck Rack. It’s basically twitter but with just the journos. You can sort by news categories which they nicely call beats and view a list of the latest links and pictures. In fact it’s a very good news source.

Twitter’s Western-bias is very evident from these pages and if you’re looking for tweeters in a specific field of interest that isn’t trending then nothing beats a journalist’s nose. It actually doesn’t take that much time to sniff out great netizens and it’s really worth doing. One note of caution is that less is more. A lot of reporters have asked me: ‘How do I get more followers?” as if that is desirable. It may be a measure of influence but if you want to use them then they need to be nurtured. If someone is giving you foursquare updates and what they had for breakfast stop following them. Too many people on a list and you create noise which reduces the usefulness of all your following.

Thankfully a lot of people have cultivated their own lists and if they’re not private you can just follow theirs! To search twitter lists just go to tlists. Search for a term and it gives you a list with a break down of who created the list, how many members it has, how many people are following it and brilliantly, how many tweets a day it generates. There’s even a cloud of other terms generated by the list. And it’s just a one button click to follow. A wonderful option is to select the language.

The next step up is Listorious. It’s more complicated than tlists and looks needlessly so. Its ‘Ask the experts’ interview type feature is probably where it’s making revenue but I don’t like it and think there’s no such thing as an ‘expert’ on twitter. This seems to rate people by their amount of followers (which is bad) and you need to navigate quite a fair way into the search to get to a view of the list. The view is good however with more information on the list following than you get on twitter and some live tweets. You can also tweet a recommendation for the list. It’s a bit more work than tlists and looks intimidating but you get to see a lot more before having to go to twitter.


By now you have the hard part done. Finding stories and people and organising your social media world can take a bit of  an investment but it is worth it. Once you’ve got the foundation laid there is still a bit of upkeep. Here are soem tools that can take you further and help keep your house in order.

Let social media work for you

Tweetake allows you to back-up your followers, people you are following and tweets with just one click. You’ll have to give them access to your account but then you can get all your friends, direct messages, favourites etc in an excel compatible format. If you’ve made the effort to cultivate your social media connections then make sure you don’t lose your hard work.

To keep track you your twitter footprint a simple and rather fun method is to use Mentionmap. You can input any username so this is good for stories where a politician, commentator, etc is creating a lot of online stir. This is also a quick and simple way to see very nicely who is taking about you. The spider diagram lets you then explore the tweeple mentioning your mentioners. So you can check whether or not you’ve penetrated the right social sphere. Mentionmap even picks up hashtags strongly associated with you. It uses the most recent tweets so keep checking to see whether you’ve stamped your social media mark.

The next step up is Klout. Again, the good thing is that you can input any twitter username and not need to know their password. So you can compare sportmen, politicians, media organisations, etc. The breakdown is excellent with an overall Klout score out of a hundred and a general picture of totla retweets, unique retweeters, unique mentioners, etc. It even puts the user in a category as to the type of social media user as seen from the social media sphere e.g. explorer, celebrity, specialist, etc. The results are quite unique to Klout but it does give you an idea of hoow big a fish you are and where your pond is located in the twitterverse.

The next step up in user function is the very popular Quora. Like most of these applications they are big in the states and expanding their reach. I am new to Quora but so far I like it and plan to use it regularly. In short, it expands on the work you’ve done building you social media persona. It builds a type of personalised forum from your twitter account, finding all you interests and connections. It’s different for every individual so you’ll have to try it for yourself. But if you have cultivated a speciality that will inform your journalistic work then this will be of great use to crowd-source advice as well as ideas.


For an explanation of how I came to use some of these tools with example situations and how some simple web applications can make for better social media searching and verification in the newsroom read my post on Sorting the Social Media Chaos. It is the talk I gave at the News Rewired conference in 2011 at Thomson Reuters.

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