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How to Find Breaking News on Twitter

Josh Catone

Update: Really odd coincidence. Almost as soon as I clicked post I hear from Matt Magain (SitePoint’s managing editor) that Twitter is blowing up with reports of an earthquake in Los Angeles. You can follow it live by searching Twitter. Also check out the trend jump like crazy on Twist. (And just a note: CNN does have a banner on the quake, but according to many tweets, Twitter again beat them to it. I can’t verify that, though.)

A big story that’s often told about the success of Twitter, is about its emergence as a breaking news platform. Twitter doesn’t compete with traditional written news (in the way blogs essentially do), but because of its speed and always on nature, it has evolved into a great tool for reporters to source breaking stories.

Twitter’s founder’s realized its potential to break news early on during a minor earthquake, and in 2007, Twitter indeed broke news about an earthquake in Mexico. Last year, the messaging service beat mainstream news organizations (and in one case even the USGS) to reports about two earthquakes — one in the UK in February, and then a larger one a month later in China.

We wrote last October that Twitter works as a news distribution platform for four reasons:

  1. It’s fast.
  2. It’s open.
  3. It’s easy.
  4. It’s two way.

But it’s also very spread out. Keeping up with breaking news on Twitter isn’t easy unless you happen to be following the people tweeting about whatever is happening at the time they’re tweeting it. That’s probably not going to happen unless you’re Robert Scoble, follow a bajillion people, and never sleep.

Twitter is also kind of jumbled — there’s a high ratio of noise to signal so it can be hard to sort out what’s newsworthy from what’s not. So how does one find out what’s happening through Twitter? A recently launched site called Twopular might help.

Twopular is a trend tracker built for Twitter that identifies hot trends on Twitter over the past 2, 8, 24 hours, week, or month. Not surprisingly, today Twitter was mostly dominated by talk of the new Palm phone, CES, MacWorld, the Windows 7 Beta, the Gaza-Israel conflict, and the BCS college football championship in the US. Twopular provides links to the top Twitter users that are causing that term to trend up (allowing you to click through to actual tweets), a link to a real-time Twitter search of that trend, as well as links to related trends.

When used in conjunction with Twist, a separate tool that graphs Twitter trends on a timeline and allows them to be compared, and with Google Trends, a similar service based on search, news, and blog data, Twopular becomes a powerful tool to track breaking news on Twitter. Certainly oft-talked about topics might appear on trend sites like Twopular even without the occurrence of breaking news, but when something breaks, a site like Twopular will usually catch it as it happens.

Twitter’s search page also lists trending topics, though it is not as robust as Twopular. Twitter’s search is actually a great way to monitor for breaking news in specific topics. Because it’s real-time and all searches are available as RSS feeds, you can use the Twitter search page to constantly monitor certain topics and keep abreast of news as it breaks. All of these sources can be used together to paint a richer and more accurate picture of what is happening in the world.

Another option, of course, is to follow @BreakingNewsOn, a Twitter based newswire that often breaks news stories before the mainstream press. In February of last year, for example, they tweeted about an earthquake in the UK well before the BBC reported it, presumably by monitoring trending topics on Twitter. They’re now raising money for a planned expansion.