October 16, 2008

Current’s “Hack the Debate” has taken content created on the Web — tweets — and displayed it over a cable television broadcast and a live Web stream. The Internet and television aren’t really set up to transfer information between each other, so it took some special tools to do this.

First, Robin Sloan, new media strategist for Current, built an application that would search for and collect tweets that had the “#current” hashtag and various election-related keywords. The system, built in a Web programming framework called Ruby on Rails, is essentially a mini content management system, Sloan said.

A team of editors read the tweets, filtered out those that would violate FCC or community standards and selected which ones they wanted to broadcast. The selected tweets were then placed in a queue to be displayed onscreen in the “Twitter River.” Another application, built in Flash, animated the tweets and combined them with the video of the debate.

The Current team could control the flow of the river, so to speak. If a tweet were relevant to a topic being debated at the time, the editors could move it up to the front of the line. And they could control the pace of the tweets displayed onscreen — starting slow and getting faster as the debate continued.

In general, a new tweet was displayed every two to four seconds. And they weren’t instantaneous. Including the time people took to tweet, Twitter to index them and Current’s editors to read and approve them, it took a few minutes from tweet to broadcast, Sloan said.

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
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