Why Twitter works: Crowd-sourcing strength in numbers

A tornado hits St. Louis' Lambert airport. One of the worst series of storms ever rips through Tuscaloosa and the south. Billionaire Warren Buffett explains mistakes he made in a recent Berkshire Hathaway deal to investors in Omaha for the annual shareholder meeting. A Navy Seals team kills Osama Bin Laden, and President Barack Obama responds with an historic Sunday night speech.

Within the short span of a couple of weeks, Twitter crowd-sourcing -- the aggregation of disparate information and data into a coherent and trustworthy story -- provided accurate accounts through textual information, photographs and video. In many cases, the use of "smart" mobile telephones and devices offered high quality visual evidence that helped to tell a story. The Tuscaloosa tornado is perhaps the most ever recorded on video. Veteran journalists I spoke with Friday night at the Omaha Press Club could not remember any story that came close to what was offered by citizen journalists via YouTube.

In 2001, we watched in horror as television news anchors presided over the developing story of the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, as well as the collapsing towers and resulting news. In 2011, historic events are unfolding on Twitter, shared on Facebook and offered at speed so fast that traditional mass media are left to follow along. 

So, media roles shift, as we see in all of these examples, toward drill-down sourcing and second-day reporting that helps place news within a larger context. Crowd-sourcing works as a first-alert system for breaking news. Traditional media verify and backfill with the rest of the story.

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