On Thursday morning (US Pacific Time), March 12, 2009, a piece of debris came close enough the International Space Station to require the astronauts to take refuge in the Soyez module, just in case there was a collision. In the end, the debris passed by without incident.
I experienced this event almost entirely through twitter. This essay is to share my experience about how this is an example of ways in which somebody can follow news in a format completely different from conventional news reporting. This experience is, obviously, peculiar to me, in that only I follow my set of twitter users, and this is my personal reaction to it. However, I believe that this kind of process is starting to occur for many more people and it changes the way those people will use conventional news reporting.
I first really noticed the issue when a friend and colleague Dave Mosher (@Disco_Dave) retweeted something from Nancy Atkinson (@Nancy_A) about the potential problem. I started to pay a little more attention, started to follow Nancy, who hadn’t been in my stream. Why did I first notice it from Dave’s tweet? Because I know him, trust him, and find plenty of good information in his tweets, so I tend to pay more attention to them. (The existence of these trust relationships is critical in the use of social media.)
Thanks to Nancy for being the key person reporting the story and contributing so much via twitter.
At this point, I’d suggest you read my twitter stream below. I have just pulled out the tweets relevant to the ISS incident. Read them from bottom to top, just as they would have appeared in twitter. The way I copied and pasted them, they don’t have a proper timestamp on each item, but you’ll get a sense for the progress of time relative to the time I cut off the stream and copied and pasted it. Re-reading a list of tweets is not really an authentic experience but I include them for reference and to give an example of what I am talking about. I left in some of the meta-narrative about what this all means for news reporting, and it is that set of tweets that gave me the reason for writing this essay.
(Here is where you step out of this discussion and read the twitter stream from bottom to top!)
As you first look at this compilation, you might be inclined to think, “Wow, that’s a lot of writing for not a great deal of information.” I definitely thought that when I looked back over what had been written. But keep in mind that this came through in real time so it only took a few seconds to glance at each post and I was looking at it in the background while doing other work.
As I read back over the stream, it reminded me of how much I felt a sense of being embedded in the narrative. As I experienced this live, I also felt like I was getting as much information as I wanted/needed to have a good sense of what was occurring.
Alan Boyle made a comment: “Twitter appears to have accelerated news cycle on something that has in the past been not that big of a deal.” That really got me thinking about what else there might be to know about this and I wondered how it would be reported once the conventional media (which includes online reporting) got on top of the story. (He is right that this might not have been a big deal. I probably wouldn’t have even bothered reading past the headline about this if it were written up as a story.)
When I started seeing some news pieces popping up in the stream after the event was over, I took a look only to find almost no new information beyond what I had seen in the twitter stream. I felt that the news stories had an awful lot of words for not much information.
I mentioned that in a tweet and had varying responses to the proposition. In one case, I was offered an example of a story that was supposed to counter my experience. But when I read the story, the only extra information I obtained was a specific detail about the part that was the debris. Frankly, I didn’t care too much about that extra piece unless it had a lot of other context (which wasn’t in the story).
I am sure that those news stories were of use to many people but, for me, having followed the stream, there was simply nothing extra added. That is not to say there can’t be value added, just that it wasn’t yet happening. I’d also suggest it on the spot is too soon for it to happen, as adding that value will take real reporting, reflection, and contextualizing.
My greatest concern about reporting in a case like this is that in the rush to get out news stories online, only the basic facts are included. That is information I could get easily in many different ways—getting collecting facts for a story like this will be an almost automated process in the future, and we are nearly there now as seen by this example in twitter space.
Those stories are often not followed up with the analysis and context that a good human reporter can add. If journalists want to prove their worth in an age when fact collection is easy, they are going to have to show they have more to offer than being stenographers and basic compositors of facts.
“But what about a sense of story?” I hear you ask (and was indeed asked about explicitly on twitter). Reading back over the twitter stream, I realized just how much story actually was included. There was building drama, human elements, tension, and many other aspects of narrative. Indeed, I am sure that it was the presence of those story-telling observations that let me feel I was embedded in the story. I lived the experience through the eyes of others who were paying even closer attention than I was.
So what is missing from the twitter stream? The bigger picture. How much of a risk is space debris really? What does it mean for the future of the ISS and other space travel? How does the recent collision in space affect future space operations?
Even those questions were getting some treatment as tweeters added links to background information that already existed on the Web.
From the scan of news stories posted at this time, I’m not seeing any real value beyond the twitter stream. Whether these are followed up and in what way will say a lot about the state of journalism in a media environment with instant information tools like twitter.
I’m not expecting a lot but will watch people like Alan Boyle closely as there are people out there taking real advantage of the opportunities offered by the highly-connected online world.
physicsdavid @robinlloyd99 Fair enough to not be convinced, but there is a class of people who are getting info in diff ways that devalues trad stories.39 minutes ago from TweetDeck in reply to robinlloyd99
physicsdavid @robinlloyd99 Yes for some those stories will add value. But as more get info other places, like twitter, “normal” forms have less value.about 1 hour ago from TweetDeck in reply to robinlloyd99
physicsdavid @robinlloyd99 Not to criticize the piece but just saying that so much was tweeted that I am more interest in the possible value add. 2/2about 1 hour ago from TweetDeck in reply to robinlloyd99
physicsdavid @robinlloyd99 Except the only info there I hadn’t already heard in tweets was the type of motor. Not much added value for the length. 1/2about 1 hour ago from TweetDeck in reply to robinlloyd99
physicsdavid @spacewriter I think that reflection is precisely where we add value. So perhaps we need a model that has rapid info dump + analysis laterabout 1 hour ago from TweetDeck in reply to spacewriter
physicsdavid @b0yle @Disco_Dave Too many news stories have only the info but taking up so much space. Bring on the added value a journo can provide. 2/2about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to b0yle
physicsdavid @b0yle @Disco_Dave From twitter I feel like I got all the info. Now will conventional “news” go beyond the info to analysis and context? 1/2about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to b0yle
Disco_Dave @physicsdavid Great question for @b0yle! Union of Concerned Scientists, has this to say about space #debris:http://tinyurl.com/c2cojdabout 2 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to physicsdavid
BadAstronomer Note: we may not hear anything from NASA for a few minutes, so don’t panic…
about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
NoisyAstronomer Probability of impact low, but must be cautious! Especially after recent satellite collision… about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
BadAstronomer ISS over south Atlantic ocean. RT @spacewriter: @BadAstronomer From the Google Earth track it looks like a piece of Iridium. about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
cosmos4u RT @TaviGreiner NASA to ISS crew just now: “We wish you the best” – sure underscores the reality of the threat. about 2 hours ago from web
Nancy_A Waiting, waiting. Crew should all be in Soyuz. 2 minutes to close encounter. about 2 hours ago from web
BadAstronomer “Conjunction” – closest approach – in 2 minutes, 10:39 Mountain time. about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
b0yle Space station crew taking refuge in Soyuz while centimeter-wide debris flies past about 4 km away in next few minutes, NASA says about 2 hours ago from web
NoisyAstronomer ISS crew moving to Soyuz escape vehicle w/ news of possible imminent debris hit. http://tinyurl.com/bmovl5 @Nancy_A has your updates about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
BadAstronomer I don’t know what this debris piece is, or how big it is, or the odds of collision. I suspect the odds are low but NASA = cautious. about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
cosmos4u RT @Nancy_A Soyuz won’t leave station unless impact actually occurs. Again, probability low, but object is big. about 2 hours ago from web
BadAstronomer Astronauts are moving in to the Soyuz escape vehicle now. Hatch is open, and they’re discussing whether to closer it or not. about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
Nancy_A Fincke and Magnus are in Soyuz. Waiting for instructions.NASA and Moscow still deciding about closing Soyuz hatch or not. about 2 hours ago from web
cosmos4u ISS crew just reports that they have “ingressed” the Soyuz and would be ready to depart if need be. Less than 10 minutes til … what? about 2 hours ago from web
cosmos4u Here “speaks” the ISS her(?)self – RT @ISStation I have my night vision goggles on looking ahead in the night sky but dont see anything. about 2 hours ago from web
Nancy_A Soyuz won’t leave station unless impact actually occurs. Again, probability low, but object is big. about 2 hours ago from web
Nancy_A Radio silence now as ISS crew working to close hatches and enter Soyuz. For now, Soyuz hatch to remain open, but can be closed quickly. about 2 hours ago from web
BadAstronomer Universe Today link for ISS danger: http://tinyurl.com/bmovl5 about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
Nancy_A Moscow MC recommends leaving hatch to Soyuz open for now, but still discussing options.NASA:closing is posible,Fincke says they’ll decide. about 2 hours ago from web
BadAstronomer 18 minutes until astronauts need to get to Soyuz escape vehicle for safety. They won’t be actually leaving ISS. about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
BadAstronomer Listen to NASA TV about ISS evacuation: http://tinyurl.com/2paqc CLick “Live Space Station Videos” in menu on right. about 2 hours ago from TweetDeck
Nancy_A Russian Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov now conferring with mission control in Moscow about close out procedures. about 2 hours ago from web
Nancy_A ISS Crew Closing node 2 hatch, will be out of communications for short time. about 2 hours ago from web
Nancy_A http://www.nasa.gov/multime… Link for NASA TV, click on “Live Space Station Video” on RH side under Channels. about 3 hours ago from web
Nancy_AJ PM hatch is getting closed, MPEV is closed. Mike Fincke and Sandy Magnus following procedures and keeping mission control apprised. about 3 hours ago from web
cosmos4u RT @Nancy_A Crew will go into Soyuz from 16:30 to 16:45 GMT, possible debris hit would be at 16:39. about 3 hours ago from web
Disco_Dave RT @Nancy_A: Possible debris hit may force evacuation of ISS. http://tinyurl.com/bmovl5 NASA TV has the latest but only Russian audio now about 3 hours ago from TweetDeck
cosmos4u NASA audio – via http://www.nasa.gov/multime… – is quite interesting: one ISS internal hatch after another being shut. about 3 hours ago from web
BadAstronomer Small but finite chance of debris hit to ISS in the next 45 minutes: http://is.gd/n4jB about 3 hours ago from TweetDeck
Nancy_A NASA communications with station says if object does hit ISS, there would only be a 10 minute reserve time. about 3 hours ago from web
Nancy_A NASA TV audio feed now confirms the crew will be going into the Soyuz in case of debris hit. Probability is low, but object is big. about 3 hours ago from web
Nancy_A Possible debris hit may force evacuation of ISS. http://tinyurl.com/bmovl5 Watching NASA tv now to get the latest,but only Russian audio now about 3 hours ago from web