Mizzou researchers create a tool that makes Twitter more powerful

Mizzou assistant professor Sean Goggins (left) and doctoral student Ian Graves developed software that measures the context of words in Twitter. (Photo courtesy of the MU News Bureau)

Mizzou assistant professor Sean Goggins (left) and doctoral student Ian Graves developed software that measures the context of words used in Twitter. (Photo courtesy of the MU News Bureau)

Twitter already is a powerful news aggregator and microblogging platform. Now, two University of Missouri researchers think they know how to improve it.

Their thinking stems from new software the pair developed that they say considers the context of tweets, not just the quantity. At present, a topic is popular or “trending” on Twitter if there are a high number of related keywords and hashtags that are associated with it.

But the software, developed by Mizzou assistant professor Sean Goggins and doctoral student Ian Graves, can be programmed to pick out words and analyze their placement within tweets.

Goggins and Graves said they tested their concept on a flurry of tweets from the Super Bowl and World Series and assigned tags to words they predicted would be common in the two broad conversations. The software scrutinized where the words were located in each tweet, thus giving the researchers notions on the words’ contextual importance and allowing them to see how conversations evolved.

“When analyzing tweets that are connected to an action or an event, looking for specific words at the beginning of the tweets gives us a better indication of what is occurring, rather than only looking at hashtags,” Goggins said in a Mizzou news release.

In tracking word placement, the researchers were able to determine the nuance attached to each Twitter discussion. They could discern the action on the ball field between pitches and on the gridiron between plays.

“The program uses a computational approach to seek out not only a spike in hashtags or words, but also what’s really happening on a micro-level,” Graves said. “By looking for low-volume, localized tweets, we gleaned intelligence that stood apart from the clutter and noise” associated with each event.

Goggins and Graves believe their software will help make Twitter more effective for monitoring community safety and tracking disaster relief, and improve understanding of cause and effect in major events such as the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the protests in Ferguson.

Although less than 5 percent of Twitter traffic is actual news, much of the dialog that drives retweets and hashtags relates to newsworthy events.

Goggins teaches in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies at Mizzou. Graves is a student in the Computer Science and IT Department at Mizzou’s College of Engineering. Nora McDonald, a graduate student at Drexel University, contributed to the study, which appears in the journal New Media and Society and was funded by a grant by the National Science Foundation.

Open Reporter requires you to have an open mind

Who can say that Honey Boo Boo inspired them to pursue journalism?

Misha Vinokur can.

Vinokur, a self-described innovator in Washington, D.C., says he was watching CNN when a scroll across the bottom of the screen announced in breaking-news fashion the half-pint reality TV star’s favorite energy drink.

Open Reporter logo“It really caught me by surprise and made me think, ‘Is this really news?’” he said. “So, I spoke to a few people and realized there’s some innovation going on in the news industry, and that maybe this is the optimum time to take advantage of that.”

He also realized there are others like himself who think better of journalism’s ability to inform, and so he launched Open Reporter, a social site with a business component.

Open Reporter, just three months old and still in beta, provides a space for journalists to “connect with others and find opportunities,” Vinokur said. Half the site serves as a social watering hole for sharing journalistic ideas and connections.

The other half is intended to host entrepreneurialism and job prospects. As of early March, Open Reporter had just over 100 members.

Misha Vinokur

Misha Vinokur

“The big thing is that it’s a closed-off environment where journalists can just talk,” Vinokur said. “It’s not designed for the general community. And part of our platform is to create apps to help journalists find stories and vet resources.”

Exactly how Open Reporter will do this, Vinokur isn’t precise. How the site will sustain itself is something of a mystery, too. He suggested that although registration for Open Reporter is free, there may be a price assessed for job hunters and job posters.

There also may be an embedded streaming content aggregator that scoops up and redistributes news media reports to members, but that, along with almost everything else about Open Reporter apart from the discussion boards, is in the discussion stage.

Vinokur realizes it sounds odd that an entrepreneur should offer a networking service for people who are paid to do their own networking, but he’s keeping an open mind.

To underscore his sincerity, Vinokur installed a sepia-toned perspective of the Watergate apartment complex in Washington for Open Reporter’s home background image.

Watergate was a monumental component for journalism,” he acknowledged. “Our long-term business strategy is to help journalists become successful. And like Watergate did, we want to help inspire the next generation of journalists and help them report the news.”

Thanksgivukkah will return sooner than you think

Thanksgivukkah cardToday, Americans can carve a turkey and light a Menorah at once.

That’s because Thanksgiving and the start of Hanukkah fall on the same day for the first time in anyone’s memory.

It might be the last time. According to calendar watchers who have crunched the numbers, the next Thanksgivukkah lies almost 80,000 years distant.

But resist chucking your Menurkey and shredding those sweet-potato latke recipes. My guess is that the yawning chasm of time will close up sooner than anyone thinks.

Why? Our calendars are imperfect. They are pegged to human events, not solar or lunar ones.

Hanukkah was inspired by the rededication of a holy site in Jerusalem that was damaged and defiled in a war about two centuries before Christ. (The word Hanukkah derives from a Hebrew translation of the verb “to dedicate.”) Hanukkah also stretches over eight days in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which has no direct relationship to any month in the Gregorian calendar most of us follow.

Thanksgiving started out in America as merely a remembrance of the pilgrims’ progress in the New World, with states and communities left to honor that effort when and how they wished. No official recognition came until 1789, and even that was a one-day-only proclamation emphasizing a citizen celebration of America’s 9-month-old Constitution.

No more proclamations came until President Lincoln issued one in 1863 as balm for a war-weary nation and set the Thanksgiving date as the last Thursday in November. Other presidents made the act of proclamation itself a tradition until 1939, when Thanksgiving was scheduled to land on Nov. 30. President Franklin Roosevelt was asked by retailers wanting an extra week of Christmas sales to move Thanksgiving. He did, to Nov. 23. He moved up Thanksgiving the following year, too.

Those changes wound up causing more consternation than contentment. Americans were divided between recognizing the traditional Thanksgiving and the new “Franksgiving” as it was derisively called until Congress passed a law 1941 that Thanksgiving should fall on the fourth Thursday in November.

The calendars themselves keep changing, too. The Gregorian calendar requires periodic adjustment — a leap day added every four years — to correspond not only with the sun’s behavior in our sky, but also because Christian tradition insists that Easter remain close to the vernal equinox. The Gregorian calendar spawned from the Julian calendar, also containing leap days. The Julian one grew out of a Roman calendar that incorporated a whole leap month.

Likewise, the Hebrew calendar factors in some leap time to prevent holidays from drifting too far into one month from another.

So, the notion that either Hanukkah or Thanksgiving is locked down or immovable for another 79,811 years strikes me as 798 centuries premature. Time, politics and perception are certain to whittle at our attitudes toward both. Already, Thanksgiving is thought to be under assault by retailers trying to move the official start of Christmas shopping into the holiday itself. A day set aside for counting our blessings may devolve into a day for counting cash instead.

Especially if Menurkeys become popular.

Kennedy story belongs to me now

President John F. KennedyI was nowhere when President Kennedy was shot.

“Nowhere” being a relative term.

My mother was in bed and seven months’ pregnant with me when she first heard about the assassination. She was reading “Time” magazine — it came in the mail that morning — and was staying off her feet on doctor’s orders when her best friend called.

The day was crisp and pleasant beneath a cloudless sky. Sunlight streamed past the open curtains to warm the room.

“Are you all right?” the friend asked. No “hello” first.

“I’m fine,” my mother answered. “Why?”

“Turn on your TV, now. They’re reporting that President Kennedy was killed.”

At that, my mother hauled herself out of bed and waddled to the living room, turned on Walter Cronkite’s report and sat stunned for hours, like the rest of the nation, watching the tragedy unfold. Right then, as with many Americans, her day went dark despite the sun.

At some point, a nurse from her doctor’s office called to ask the same question her friend had. Half a century ago, medicine was about care, not insurance.

My mother replied she was fine, to which the nurse said she should plan on coming in for a check-up anyway “to be sure.”

“Well, the doctor will be in tomorrow, regardless,” the nurse said.

My father, meanwhile, was at work and having lunch when he heard. He was sitting on a bench outside; the weather was too nice to ignore. He had just opened his lunchbox and started removing the wax paper around his sandwich. He carried a little portable radio in the lunchbox, too; it always came out before the sandwich did.

He was about to take the first bite when the announcement was made. He sat and listened maybe five minutes, then re-wrapped the sandwich, closed the lunchbox and returned home. He did not stop inside to tell his boss. The radio remained on the whole time.

My mother repeated this story to me every Nov. 22, once I was old enough to understand it. She did that because she measured her life against world events — mention most any of them that transpired within the span of her life and she knew what she was doing at that moment.

This year is the first that I recall her story of Nov. 22 without prompting. She died in August.

My father, who has trouble with recollection due to failing health, does not remember that day. He sometimes does not even remember my name.

So, the story belongs to me now.

Windows 8.1, Obamacare, and the risks of early adoption

Early Adopters

We all enjoy occasional trips along the cutting edge. Spurred by our adrenaline and excitement, these trips can lift moods and egos by suggesting that we’re smarter, faster, better than the masses.

Those who live by this routine are called early adopters, or “trendsetters.” They’re a step removed from innovators but enjoy the cachet of being first at anything.

They constitute a distinct population, whereas most of us prefer hanging with the masses and steering wide of the danger zone, because the comfort zone has lounge chairs and mini refrigerators.

But what if there seems no choice but to join the early adopters?

That was the feeling people had last week before flaws and a resulting wave of bad press beset two high-profile tech arrivals: Windows RT 8.1 and HealthCare.gov.

Both were supposed to address pressing national issues. Both were touted as easy fixes for those issues. And both went public after intense PR campaigns nudging the public toward early adoption.

Now, both are case studies for caution.

Windows RT 8.1, an operating system update released last Thursday, aimed to fix the balky, user-unfriendly Microsoft Windows 8 for tablet PCs. Less than two days later, RT was withdrawn from the free-download section of the Microsoft Store because of reports that it was rendering tablets unresponsive or inoperative.

HealthCare.gov, the official registration site for the Obama administration’s health care expansion, was promoted as an easy-open door to health care for millions of Americans without any. But it nearly drowned from a flood of applicants after going live Oct. 1, then suffered complaints that it was confusing and difficult to use.

Microsoft resumed Windows RT 8.1 downloads Sunday and showed dismayed users how to resurrect their failing tablets. Exactly what went wrong in the first place was not announced.

The federal government meanwhile says it will enlist “experts” to repair HealthCare.gov ― which sounds as if they weren’t already on board ― but time is against them; the deadline for millions of uninsured Americans to register is late March, and the site was supposed to handle much of the load.

Early adopters relish the exclusivity that being first provides. This emotional impulse puts these people out front and keeps them there.

But the impulse works two ways; a segment of the early adopter population simply seeks completion. Members vie for first place not to brag but to escape the crowd. Their comfort zones lack room for more than one person.

I was among them until becoming personal technology editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For six years, part of my job involved reviewing new devices and software before they went public and wrestling with whatever hardships ensued. The main benefit was that I learned how to fix computers and other gadgets without guidance, because sometimes the equipment was too new to have any.

The secondary benefit was an awareness of what it took to be a successful early adopter: research. Those who take risks at any level and count their success in bunches also prepare for failure to come just as often. They examine what precipitated innovation and see obstacles as challenges. They have read about other people’s mistakes, even interviewed the people who made them. They trade wisdom and warnings, share insights and incentives.

In short, they’re prepared to accept the pain just as much as the pleasure of early adoption.

Close observers of Microsoft understand that Windows has a history of quirkiness. That’s not necessarily a dig against Microsoft, rather an acknowledgement that computer operating systems are complex and difficult to perfect.

Web developers understand that any site meant to guide millions of visitors simultaneously through a maze of information by disparate and perhaps conflicting sources needs testing and re-testing before going live. That’s not necessarily an assault on HealthCare.gov’s creators, rather a reminder that huge sites require a huge amount of testing no matter whose name is on them.

In hindsight, it was smarter to wait on Windows RT 8.1 and hold off jumping into HealthCare.gov. So, next time you’re pressured to be an early adopter, consider looking back before jumping out in front.

Please, please, PLEASE, think before you tweet

Think before you tweet

context (n.) — the portions of written or spoken statements that influence meaning or effect.

Philadelphia TV reporter and former anchor Joyce Evans may finally appreciate the meaning of this word, thanks to social media.

Kansas University journalism professor David Guth might as well, for the same reason.

Both have entered a pantheon of infamy wrought by ill-advised actions on Twitter, considered the fastest vehicle for embarrassment apart from reality TV. They are poster children for the importance of cramming context into the small space Twitter allows, no matter how tight the fit.

The question now is whether anyone who witnessed what they went through garners a shred of wisdom from the circumstances.

Evans ran headlong into a wave of unwanted attention this week after merging pop culture and breaking news into one cumbersome, 89-character blurt on Twitter for her employer, Fox affiliate WTXF-TV.

Evans' Tweet

Evans’ intent was clear; she wanted to surf the wave of attention spawned by broad public interest in “Breaking Bad,” the black-comedy crime drama on AMC that bowed out Sept. 29 after 62 episodes and a history of far-reaching social engagement.

But in channeling “Bad” the way she did, Evans trampled the distinction between reality and fantasy, and suggested she was deaf to the tone of each. Audiences tried to enlighten her.

Evans Criticism

An apology for her overstatement seemed in order. Instead, Evans compounded the problem by pushing off responsibility onto her Twitter followers.

Evans' Response

The subsequent fusillade stretched well beyond WTXF’s viewing area, silenced Evans’ usually busy Twitter feed as well as her Facebook page, and cost her the weekend anchor job she held since 1996.

Guth’s own Twitter reality check in mid-September, on the other hand, was purposeful and potentially more costly. The associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Communications exploded against conservative commentary on the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16. Thirteen people died, including the assailant.

In response to perceived invective on Twitter by alleged supporters of the National Rifle Association, Guth posted:

Guth's Tweet

The reaction was predictable. Even Republican state lawmakers vowed retaliation, and the president of the Kansas State Rifle Association promised that her NRA chapter would campaign to have Guth fired.

KU at first distanced itself from Guth’s comments, then from Guth. The university hustled him off on a research sabbatical that was not scheduled to start until next year. His Twitter feed also came down.

Guth remains unapologetic. He said on TV after the tweet that he was “deliberately provocative,” and in an email responding to my request for comment, he wrote, “It’s unfortunate that my comments have been deliberately distorted. I know what I meant. Unfortunately, this is a topic that generates more heat than light.”

He said he expects to be back at KU at the conclusion of his sabbatical but declines to say anything more about what happened. The university is similarly silent.

As for what the rest of us expect, especially from professional journalists and educators, it’s something more than selfishness, something more than a middle finger pointed at our sensibilities.

When Evans hyper-extended her comparison, she made what many of us might consider an honest mistake. The lure of social media is in part due to its speed and the excitement that speed generates. In turn, we react without full awareness of what we’re saying and remain ignorant until the excitement subsides.

A 2009 study by the University of Southern California seems to confirm this, explaining that social media moves too fast for our “moral compass” to catch up with what we’re thinking.

“If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a researcher for the study, told CNN. “For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection.”

Sree Sreenivasan agrees. He’s a popular tech evangelist and one of the foremost advocates for sensible use of social media. At the Society of Professional Journalists’ national convention in Fort Lauderdale last year, he advised journalists against posting before thinking.

The owner of more than 50,000 Twitter followers, Sreenivasan waits three to six minutes between tapping a tweet and posting it because he knows that first words usually are not the best words, in any medium.

“Anything you share can and will be used against you,” he said.

This is sound and potentially career-saving advice for people such as Joyce Evans and David Guth who put hubris before introspection. In both instances, the Twitterers omitted context, either by accident or by design, then denied that their choice of words muddled their messages.

You are the best protector against your own embarrassment and ridicule. We need to remember that in this social-media inflected age, often our only guide to responsible behavior is staring back at us in the mirror.

Maybe Evans would still be a TV anchor and Guth still teaching if not for their unartful language. Unfortunately for all of us, their fame is based on what they said, not what they meant.

(Update: Guth will be allowed to teach again at Kansas next fall, the Lawrence Journal-World reports.)

Résumé advice, from someone who knows

Looking for a job

Résumés became a stock in my trade after leaving my 15-year place of employment last summer. A round of layoffs had nudged me toward the door, but upon being invited back I said no. The future in the same role looked bleak; institutional changes diminished its importance and no path to advance out of it was obvious. I decided then to take a chance and forge ahead on my own.

That meant introducing myself to a writing and editing marketplace virtually unaware I existed, and so I experimented with an assortment of tools and tactics to connect with potential clients. Social media, word-of-mouth advertising, personal correspondence and networking events are great for this; they help sell your personality.

When it comes to selling one’s skills, however, the best tool remains a clear, crisp résumé.

Résumés date back more than 500 years to Leonardo da Vinci, who is believed to have written the first one, but they were informal in style and substance until the 1950s. Today, there are three basic types: the functional résumé, listing work experience or skills categorized by skill area or job function; the reverse chronological résumé, listing work experience by date, starting with the most recent, and going back 10 to 15 years; and the hybrid résumé, which mixes the two types.

The typical résumé is short — two 8½-by-11 sheets of paper in length, at most — and direct, highlighting active verbs and essential keywords related to the job sought. Even video résumés are succinct, lasting no more than 60 seconds.

That’s because brevity is a courtesy in the current job market, as employers and potential freelance clients may receive dozens if not hundreds of applications for one position or task. Given this flood of applications, nothing guarantees that those résumés are read carefully.

But there are a few things I have learned through success and failure – mostly failure – that résumé writers can do to boost their chances:

Have a clear focus —Résumés are supposed to land an interview, not land a job. Think of writing one as tapping an employer on the shoulder for a quick introduction. Using that approach, the résumé will likely sound more precise than plodding.

For video résumés, have a prepared script and memorize it. Reading from a prepared script or cue cards makes the performer’s eyes shift, giving the impression that the job applicant is distracted or untrustworthy.

Use clean typography — Certain styles of type read better in print than online, and vice versa. Because employers often ask that résumés be emailed, then print out a hard copy for use in a face-to-face interview, it makes sense to employ a type style that works well in both formats. Ariel, Times and Verdana best fit this purpose. And don’t cram information onto the page; leave room for white space to assure a fresh, inviting look.

When making a video résumé, dress as you would for the interview and use a background that lends itself to the theme of the position sought. For example, regarding writing and editing jobs, backgrounds that include books, magazines or other scholarly items add a formal, cerebral touch. Avoid using a plain white or monochrome background, as this can flatten a person’s appearance on camera.

Use clear language, avoid pronouns — Precise, polite English conveys professionalism; jargon and slang do not. Keep a dictionary and grammar guide close by. Steer clear of writing “I” or “me” because they are redundant in a document lacking any other characters. Use “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or any preferred title, if it is known. Include this courtesy in cover letters and contract bids.

An applicant’s demeanor matters, too, almost as much as proper language. A résumé that’s negative in tone or critical of former employers leaves the reader with a negative feeling about the applicant.

Use descriptive titles — Simply saying “writer,” or “editor,” or “manager” to describe yourself is not enough, as these terms mean different things to different people. A detailed title — end-user documentation writer, acquisitions editor, product development manager — suggests what tasks were involved in the role and paints an image in the employer’s mind.

Use bullet points — Long, gray blocks of type are boring and hard to read. Breaking out main tasks and talents in bulleted lists provides something for the eye to latch on to without searching.

Include specifics — As with titles, specifics are important when describing work history and personal goals related to the job sought. Emphasize achievements for each past position, expectations and aspirations for the new one. Tell an employer what you hope to bring to the job and how you may be able to solve problems related to it. If there are statistics that suit this purpose, include them.

Of course, effective use of detail requires research. Investigate the history of the employer or client before starting to write, and find out more about the job itself through a Google search, and previous or current employees if possible.

Be honest – The urge to embellish a résumé is strong, and usually fatal. Digital record-keeping makes everyone’s life an open book and makes it much easier to find the lie sooner or later. Avoid the needless risk by being straightforward, honest. That’s not to say certain tacit skills valuable to a potential employer should remain obscure, but be certain to describe those skills within their proper context.

Edit with care — Nothing devalues résumés faster than poor spelling and poor grammar. Incorrect names and titles can land résumés into the trash, too. So, read through every word, every sentence, at least two or three times and check all facts, then find someone else to read over your work. Inaccuracies cut deep enough through an applicant’s professionalism to also mar one’s personal integrity. Leave prospective employers and clients thinking you’re invaluable, instead of indifferent.

(An adaptation of this post also appears in The Independent Journalist, a freelancing blog published by the Society of Professional Journalists.)