Some people do search because they want to do research on a topic. Maybe they want to look up ‘the best Chinese restaurants in Dallas’ or want to see if someone on the internet can help them diagnose a bug on their computer.
I sometimes do all that, but as I’m in the news business, I’ve always been interested in real-time news search. I want to look up what’s happening in the world right now, preferably with text and photos on what just happened.
Of course real-time search is a difficult nut to crack, and nobody has got it just right.
For years I’ve been doing numerous Twitter searches every day through Twitter’s native search engine. I’ve been a fan of it since it was a startup called Summize that Twitter ended up buying rather than building their own solution.
But Twitter has its limits as a real-time news search engine. For one thing, rumours spread extremely fast on Twitter, and it can be hard to identify the original source of the “news.” It’s the same with images, where it can be hard to identify the proper provenance of an image, and determine whether it’s legit. Serious journalists are getting duped all the time by rumours, hoaxes, photoshops, photos from years ago alleged to be from now, and so on.
One of the great things about Twitter is that lots of people are, to some extent, curators of news, which means that if you follow a good swath of people your feed is likely to turn up fascinating stuff all the time. But a downside to that is that you have tons of people tweeting and retweeting the same stuff, and when you’re trying to search for something, wading through all that can be difficult.
More and more I find myself — when some big event is breaking — searching not on Twitter, but on Instagram.
Today for example, I saw tweets that in Kiev protesters had taken down the statue of Lenin. Earlier in the week there were tweets saying the same thing, but those turned out to be false. But on Instagram I was quickly able to find images of the Lenin statue collapsing just by searching the hashtag #Lenin, figuring that in a crowd of thousands, someone would have Instagrammed the collapse and used that hashtag.
The very first image I came across was this one.
It looked pretty great, but I was a little concerned by the letterboxing, which kind of gave off the vibe of it not being a fresh, real picture. However, I noticed that on the picture in addition to the hashtag #Lenin, there was this hashtag in Cyrillic: #Ленин. I figured that meant Lenin, and so I searched that, and that’s when I found this unmistakable video.
From there I found a lot more images all looking the same, posted around the same time showing the Lenin sculpture coming down.
There was something else that helped confirm these images were legitimate: several of the people posting to Instagram had a history of posting other stuff from the Kiev protests, which added an element of authenticity-by-past-context.
Instagram isn’t perfect, but for the most part you don’t get re-posts (though re-gramming is a thing on a small scale) and you can fairly quickly establish whether a person’s photo makes sense in the context of their previous images. Whereas on Twitter lots of people are news curators, on Instagram people mostly all do the same thing: post what they see right in front of their eyes at that time.
This isn’t the first time I’ve used Instagram to search the news as it was happening in real time.
The other night I saw some people tweeting about how bad the smog was in Shanghai, and there were a couple of images floating around that did indeed look pretty bad. But it wasn’t clear who originally took the photo, or if it was even a current photo. So I quickly searched #shanghai on Instagram, and it only took a second to realize that yes, the smog was pretty terrible right then.
There were two key things that Instagram provided right away. First there were a lot of people posting smog pics like the one here, and like all of the ones I posted to this post.
Also a lot of people were using Instagram to post screenshots from apps that showed smog ratings in Shanghai.
So between the plethora of actual smog photos and the screenshots of air quality index warnings there was no doubt that all of these images I was seeing were real and timely. And they told a story that there was notable activity right now.
Instagram search isn’t always perfect for news. For one thing, you have to search via one single hashtag, which is annoying. And you can’t search by location (though there are third party search engines that do this). And sometimes you get a lot of people Instagramming a shot of their TV covering news. On the day of the LAX shooting recently, Instagram was filled with people who had taken pictures of CNN and posted it, which was the opposite of useful.
But the potential with Instagram is huge in terms of seeing exactly what people are seeing on the ground as events unfold. And it wouldn’t take much for Instagram (owned by Facebook) to improve the search and make it even more useful. In the meantime, it’s increasingly my go-to place to actually figure out what’s going on as events unfold
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