Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other sites have generally been treated as tools to produce or distribute a traditional story.
But increasingly, journalists are starting to see greater potential in social media sites.
While covering last week’s Democratic National Convention as part of The Charlotte Observer’s social media team, I was reminded of how social media can also be a storytelling tool and, in some cases, the story itself.
Storytelling with social media
One of the ways I used social media as a storytelling tool during the convention was to compile tweets that told a linear story. You can do this by using Storify or by embedding tweets in the HTML of an article page.
Tweets are great for illustrating how an event unfolded. Half an hour before my shift ended Monday night, a colleague turned to me and asked, “Hey, did you see that tweet about a protest happening?” I hadn’t, but it didn’t take long to find it. Within a couple of minutes, I’d found a link to a Ustream account from which 23-year-old Nathan Grant (@Occupy Eye) was broadcasting the march.
By that time, several tweets had appeared relating to the late-night protest. There was a live video of protesters in black marching arm in arm. Something was happening.
We told the writers nearby. While they tried to reach sources over the phone, I compiled tweets in Storify and prepared a new post in Blogger. Within two to three minutes of the first tweets announcing the protesters had returned to their campsite, we published a blog post (with the Storify) highlighting tweets that showed how the protest unfolded.
The post wasn’t a replacement for the traditional story to follow; the story in the paper had confirmed details and included a police perspective. But my post told readers essentially what happened, and it was almost immediate.
You can also use tweets to capture reactions. Around 10:15 p.m. Wednesday night, I situated myself at a dimly lit table on the top floor of the Time Warner Cable Arena. As the delegates erupted with delight at Bill Clinton’s speech, I quietly dragged and dropped tweets into a Storify that showed viewers’ reactions to the former president’s words.
The result was an entertaining post that gave readers a sense of the kinds of reactions people were posting on Twitter. The post saved them from having to sort through hundreds of thousands of tweets themselves.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when using social media to tell stories:
- I’ve found that when compiling a how-it-unfolded Twitter story, it’s best to organize the tweets in chronological order.
- When creating a Storify that captures people’s reactions, start by adding any tweets that stand out, then look for trends. Organizing a Storify like this can be as simple as “positive” and “negative,” but it’s more fun to include specific, even humorous, trends.
To add an interactive element, try embedding Twitter’s new interactive timeline. Set up the timeline to reflect the content of your story (like displaying any tweet with “#DNC2012,” “Bill Clinton” or “occupy protest”). Readers can see what else is being said and contribute to the conversation themselves.
Jen Rothacker, editor for innovative and new projects at the Observer, suggests getting more out of your Storify by embedding it at the end of the written story. The Charlotte Observer did this with its coverage of Tom Brokaw’s trip to the hospital.
Don’t limit yourself to Twitter. Embed YouTube videos or take a screenshot of a Facebook post. For photo-friendly topics, you could create a photostream like CNN’s Political Ticker did with Instagram and Twitpics.
Social media as the story
Social media has gone beyond a platform where people display their lives — it’s a space in which people live their lives. There are some friendships, conversations and events occur entirely online.
Covering social media as news is particularly important for publications targeting young to middle-aged adult audiences. The average Twitter user, according to Pingdom, is 37.3 years old. Nevertheless, social media statistics can reflect information that is relevant to the oldest of audiences.
During the DNC, I encountered two ways to cover social media as news. Last Tuesday evening, Anderson Cooper announced on Twitter that he’d arrived in Charlotte and wondered if anyone had recommendations about where to go.
More than 100 people — many of them Charlotteans — retweeted and responded with recommendations for their favorite local restaurants and sights. A few people even suggested he come to their home. Or marry them.
The conversation, as far as I know, didn’t lead to anything newsworthy outside of social media. Nevertheless, it was fun and interesting for Charlotte locals, so I created a blog post (again, with a Storify) outlining the conversation. The post ended up being one of the most popular posts on the @Charlotte blog, which the Charlotte Observer created for the DNC.
Another interesting use of this approach is Jarrett Bellini’s weekly CNN column, “Apparently This Matters,” in which he writes about whatever happens to be trending in social media at the time. It is both hilarious and indicative of the digital culture.
I also thought about how social media can “become the story” after seeing people’s reactions to the DNC speeches. When President Barack Obama set a Twitter political record with 52,756 tweets per minute (TPM) immediately following his acceptance speech, news outlets everywhere dug into TPM comparisons between the DNC and RNC.
According to Twitter:
Bill Clinton peaked at 22,087 TPM
Michelle Obama peaked at 28,003 TPM
Mitt Romney peaked at 14,289 TPM
The question, of course, is whether those numbers mean anything.
Regardless, that information is everywhere — from major TV networks to local newspapers — and I wouldn’t be surprised if news outlets start paying more attention to social media statistics surrounding other major events.
Melissa Abbey is a senior at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Melissa interned with The Charlotte Observer’s social media team for one week to cover the Democratic National Convention, which was held in Charlotte, NC.