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An Interview with Andy Carvin

With 40,000 Twitter followers and a dedicated stream of local sources, Andy Carvin has become a first stop on Twitter for news throughout the Middle East and North Africa. An NPR strategist, Carvin has approached social media–and Twitter in particular–as a platform for real-time reporting.

An early contributor to Global Voices, Carvin is no stranger to the work that we do, and has long seen the value of citizen journalism. In a February an interview with Ethan Zuckerman, he emphasized the importance of “getting actual people on the ground telling their story as they participate in the event.”

This interview is comprised of questions contributed by members of Global Voices’ Middle East and North Africa team.

What tools do you use to mine Twitter, and what do you feel is missing from the tool arsenal?

Right now I'm using pretty standard stuff – Tweetdeck, Twitter Search, etc. As long as I have a sense of who I'm looking for and in what context, the tools themselves generally don't matter as long as they allow me to organize my Twitter monitoring. Having said that, there are some tools I'd like to get my hands on, like ones that can help me manage my ever-increasing flow of @ replies to me, which sometimes make it hard to separate people who just want to chat with me from those who have news tips.

Social media coverage is becoming increasingly common across media; do you see a fundamental shift happening in the way news is covered, particularly internationally?

I think social media as part of news coverage really shines when it comes to international coverage, basically because even the largest news orgs can't have people in every place at once. After the Boxing Day tsunami, news wires didn't necessarily have full-time staff in place like the Maldives or the Andaman Islands, so getting information from citizen journalists was vital to cover the story. With the advent of Twitter and content sharing sites like YouTube, it's possible to get a peek into any news story around the world where there happens to be Internet access. And if you ask for help, you'd be amazed by how many people in these places are willing to assist you in your reporting.

Photo of Andy Carvin by Jamie Reinsch

We've watched you report on the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and now Syria. You often share graphic images and videos from the ground. Do you ever feel overwhelmed or exhausted by covering such often heartbreaking events?

Sure, it can be really tough sometimes, especially when there are videos or stories about children getting hurt. I've got two very young kids and when I see kids of a similar age caught in the crossfire, it really shakes me up. Also when you see people on twitter live-tweeting being attacked, it can really rattle you, because you have to create a picture in your head of what's going on, and that's sometimes even more vivid than the reality of it. But I've made a point of knowing when to step away from my laptop or iPhone. The last thing I want to do is burn out and give up, but I don't see that happening any time soon.

We assume you keep going out out of a strong sense of responsibility to keep on doing what you’re doing — where did that come from? Is it as a result of doing this job, or the other way around?

It's hard to pin down precisely. Part of it is simply that I'm a news junkie, and I'd be closely following events in the region because it's of such global significance. But I also have worked a lot in online disaster response over the years, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake. So I'm sure I have a strong inner need to bear witness in situations like this.

In Egypt and Bahrain, it was relatively easy to find and vet Twitter users. In Libya and Yemen, for example, it’s much more difficult. How do you manage to locate social media content from less active countries?

It's been tough. I didn't know anyone personally in either countries, so I started by trying to find connections to expat communities in the US through my own personal networks. Soon enough I found people who were willing to talk with me and give me their impression of who the leading online players were in each country. As for finding content, it's easier than you'd think. Facebook has been a goldmine for photos and videos, as has YouTube. You just need to know where to look for them.

As you mentioned, it can be difficult to find sources in certain countries, and we must sometimes rely on secondary sources. Do you believe the location of your source affects its credibility? How often do you cover reports on a country from users outside of that country?

It depends. For example, most of the Libyans I'm following on Twitter aren't in Libya, largely because the ones who are in Libya have had their Internet access cut. They're spending their time on the phone getting updates from people on the ground. Of course, that means it's second-hand information, so I have to be a bit more skeptical about it, but I've been pleasantly surprised how accurate their info has been in general. Also, it's not unusual for expats to be involved in protest movements, because they're already in exile. They're in a position to share lots of info and opinions since they're so far from home.

Given the torrent of information you’re parsing during any given period, what is your criteria for choosing what to relay to the rest of us?

It really varies. For example, if I know something big is happening, like police firing on protesters, I'll focus on trying to get first-hand accounts or footage from the scene. At times when people are angry and emotional, I'll just retweet them and weave them together, capturing their stories almost like an oral historian would. And then when I find something that's just interesting, I'll share it. But probably the most important thing I do is retweet information I'm skeptical about, and ask people to help me vet it. All sorts of people then chime in and help me separate fact from fiction, because I have so many people following me on Twitter who are either from the region or are subject-matter experts.

Yours is one of the more innovative uses of Twitter we’ve seen. When you’re tweeting and re-tweeting, are you ever thinking in terms of creating a narrative via your tweetstream?

Absolutely. If you look at how I tweeted Tunisia, I saw it as a narrative arc, from Bouazizi's suicide to Ben Ali fleeing the country. I want to capture the plot points and rising tension as it went along, and I used Storify to archive it all. Since then, there have been so many countries in revolt simultaneously I'm just focused on keeping up as best I can, while making sure I put a human face on what is happening in each country.

How do you deal with the language barrier? Do you rely on others’ translations or do you use machine translation (or both)?

For text I use machine translation, which usually gives me the gist of what's being said. If it's video or something like that, I ask my Twitter followers for help. I typically get a rough translation within 20 minutes of my request, and often volunteers will collaborate to get a more specific translation and then caption the video. It's extraordinary how generous people have been with their time and their knowledge; I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing without their help.

Have you ever been surprised at feedback you’ve received for your live-tweeting?

It catches me off-guard when someone famous retweets me, like UN ambassador UN Rice, or NFL player Chad Ochocinco. But the best part is that my twitter followers want me to succeed, and are concerned about my well-being. They remind me to go to bed, eat some food, spend time with my family. They really keep me grounded.

And of course, we all want to know: what do you think of Global Voices?

Actually, I was one of the first contributors to Global Voices, way back in December 2004:

http://globalvoicesonline.org/author/andycarvin/

Back then I was traveling a lot around the world, so Global Voices was a great outlet for me to share my blog posts, podcasts and videos. It's been my primary source for monitoring online communities around the world ever since. I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing to day if it hadn't been for Global Voices, as I made some of my first contacts in Tunisia and Egypt through the GV community.

Thank you, Andy Carvin.

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