Thursday, May 13, 2010...8:30 am

UK election coverage 2010: Twitter vs the BBC

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Just for the hell of it, I spent last Thursday night’s election on Twitter (on TweetDeck, since you ask – thanks for the tip, Soilman).

At the same time, I watched the BBC’s new coverage. I wanted to see what value, if any, each one had in following and understanding the events of the night.

I’ve covered some of the media’s election limitations here and here. But it’s interesting to see how Twitter performed as a medium of information and analysis. The result? At least as well as the BBC in some ways.

First, it’s absolutely true that Twitter is full of drivel. It’s the equivalent of being in a crowded and noisy pub with a group of people that you vaguely know, having a conversation via SMS.

On the other hand, pick your pub-goers carefully, and there’s some value in it. While old-style big media was still getting to grips with the night’s real story (the polling station debacle) and starting to report on the actual events, some Twitterers were thinking more critically about what had happened.

Faced with what seemed to be an unprecedented electoral situation, returning officers acted in different ways. Some locked voters out or called in police to handle them. Others tried harder to accommodate voters.

In Lewisham, apparently, two polling stations stayed open after 10pm to allow voters to cast their ballots. This was duly reported on the BBC – but it took a blogger to do the basic research and report that this would actually be illegal. (In the event, a Lewisham council spokesman claimed the move was within the law as the ballot papers had been handed out before the 10pm cut-off, according to the Guardian.)

Malcolm Coles went to the Electoral Commission web site and checked the facts, reporting them on Twitter as he wrote them up on a blog post between 11.53pm and 12.16am. It was another 20 minutes before the BBC found someone from the Electoral Commission to bring into the studio to talk about the ramifications of it all. (As Coles Tweeted, “I wonder if she is reading from my blog”.)

Actually, I’m sure the BBC must have started researching the story earlier – it takes time to marshal interviewees and prepare questions. But it’s interesting to see how fast social media could respond quite substantively to events, and how perceptive and enquiring its users can be.

I also saw links to the first mobile phone coverage of the polling station snafu via Twitter – some via the Telegraph web site, some direct from YouTube – a little before they began to be shown on TV.

In the end I didn’t really add anything of any value to the conversation (as I’m sure participants will confirm). But it was interesting to see how useful it was as a tool for collating information from disparate sources and sharing it with the crowd.

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