Friday, July 11, 2008

Aggregating Local Conversations With Twitter

Last night I went to Andrew Hyde's Startup Drinks, an informal gathering of people who work at startups, or are interested in startups or the startup culture, in the Boulder, Colorado area.

While talking to a fellow innovator there about something I'd posted in my Twitter feed, he surprised me.

"Oh, was that you? I saw that."

Really, I asked? At first I assumed he was following me in Twitter, which of course made me feel cool. But alas, it turned out that wasn't the case. I delved further and learned that he found me through a Twitter Local search.

There are dozens of sites that now let you search for conversations that are happening in Twitter near you. The social geek I was chatting with bookmarks one of these local searches for Boulder and regularly follows what people are saying. I have to say that this is one of the most interesting things I've seen around community aggregation in a long time, and the possibilities for how it could be used are endless.

One easy way to do this is with Summize, a search engine that indexes conversations in Twitter (and which Twitter is rumored to possibly buy, too). To localize it, all you do is type the word "near:" followed by a city name or zip code. For example, I enter "near:80020" for areas around Broomfield, Colorado where I live.

You might be tempted to say, "So what? I use local message boards like that. This is nothing new." But you start to see how new and powerful this is when you use a Twitter local search to research a local problem that a lot of other local people are having.

Today I think we saw this on a global level with the iPhone 3G release. Like people all over the world, I shelled out a few hundred bucks for an upgraded iPhone only to find out that Apple's iTunes servers had crashed due to too many people trying to activate their phones. I wanted to know if I was the only one experiencing this, so I typed "iphone near:80020" in Summize and got a list of geographically targeted conversations from people near me who were having the same problem. (If you click that link now, you'll see posts from happy iPhone owners who were finally able to complete activation and are now surfing the web at high speeds from their handhelds).

A more practical, meaningful example might be a local disaster such as a flood or tornado. The next time we get a tornado warning in my area, I'm typing "tornado near:80020" into Summize to see what comes up. And when the Democratic National Convention is happening in Denver, you can see what local Denverites think about Obama's acceptance speech at Invesco Field by typing in "obama near:Denver".

But Summize doesn't stop there. Just as it pulls content from Twitter, it makes it easy for you to put its content elsewhere using search RSS feeds. I can think of several uses for local conversation RSS feeds for news organizations, but one is creating locally aggregated topical searches and embedding them throughout a news site. And this can be a lot easier than you may think.

For our Printcasting project, I've already been experimenting with Drupal, which has some very nice built-in feed aggregation features. Today, in about 10 minutes, I was able to feed local Summize results for my area of conversations about Barack Obama, John McCain and the iPhone. They update every 15 minutes, so if you go back a little later you should see new conversations about those topics that get pulled in from Summize. Then, I'm able to feed all three of them into a Conversations category container.

Remember: I'm not a programmer, and I was able to do this. So if you're one of those people who learns enough just to be dangerous, trust me, you can do this too. If you don't want to mess around with Drupal, you can do something similar with RSS feeds in Ning, which is free and easier to use for novices.

Tools like Twitter and Summize that make it easy to aggregate local conversations are something every newsroom should be making use of. As I've said before, journalism is not work that is done for its own sake, but because it has relevance to a community -- and most often that means a local community. Or as Steve Yelvington says, building community should be job #1 for newspapers.

I also believe that the business of local news organizations is fundamentally about connecting local people with shared interests and goals to each other, and then connecting businesses to those targeted audiences that community exposes. Not every newspaper is able to create a rich social networking experience like we have in Bakersfield, but they can tap into existing social tools like Summize. I think there's a case to be made for an "editor" devoted to nothing but finding the best current local conversations searches.

What local conversation search tools do you use? Post a comment and let me and others know.

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