Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The new real-time researcher

So hopefully you got some sleep last night after you voted, for those of you that live in America. But apart from the obvious result, our election had some other radical changes in how we consume information, and I wanted to share some thoughts. It was a historic night for these reasons, too.

The Internets have transformed those of us that are information junkies in a new way, to be our own real-time researchers, trend spotters and fact checkers. A combination of better search analytics, new technologies such as Twitter and live feeds, and even the relatively innocuous Facebook “I’ve voted” counter have put some very powerful tools in the hands of ordinary citizens.

It also helps that we had three relative rookies for our election-night network news anchors: while their talents (and take-home pay) are considerable, many of us haven’t had the relationship with Katie, Brian, and Charlie that we once had with Tom, Peter and Dan -- or even Walter, Chet and David. Part of this is the waning influence of network TV, part of it is the movement away from newspapers and newsmagazines. (US News and World Report going monthly? Who would have thought?)

But the real reason has to do with the fact that the technologies to enable our own exploration of the world have become easier and more powerful to use, and within our grasp, even if we don’t have exceptional search skills. Let’s examine each of the technologies that have contributed to this state of affairs.

First is the ability to keep on top of what people are Googling. In a post last month in the, Marshall Kirkpatrick writes how listeners were doing their own fact checking by Googling certain terms during the VP debates. By looking at the aggregated searches, we see that many people learned exactly which article of the Constitution covers the powers of the Vice President and that Biden got it wrong.

From the Google stats, we also see that Tina Fey has become a political personality, and indeed even more popular among searchers than Mr. Biden himself. Having watched many of the SNL skits, I found myself getting confused over who was the real Palin, and indeed didn’t do well on the Chicago Tribune’s photo quiz to distinguish the two women:,0,5534058.triviaquiz

Speaking of those SNL skits, how many of you first watched them online versus on your living room TV? What was curious for me was that I first went to YouTube to find the videos, only to realize that was posting them for the next-day audience on their own site. About time they figured out. How long did it take you to realize that as well? Maybe the networks finally understand the word-of-mouth day-after effects and can capture some of those page views for themselves. Do we really need an HD TV picture to see these videos when the postage-stamp a 320x240 portion of a Web browser can be just as satisfying?

In past elections, I was online most of the night, looking at the major network news Web sites, tracking the exit polls and ballots. Last night, I still did this, but there were other sites, such as, that aggregated historical information so I could put this into context, and see how voting patterns from previous elections have compared with this year’s. As deep as I wanted to dive, I could easily find it with a few mouse clicks. It made the broadcast blather from the major networks even more irrelevant to me.

Having waited in line for about 70 minutes to vote yesterday morning, I was curious to see how many people voted early in the day by watching Facebook’s real-time vote counter, which passed a million votes early in the day and topped out at somewhere around 4 million by the time the polls closed in the West. Granted, this counter was more of a stunt than any analytical tool, but it gave me a very real indication that yes, we as Americans (or at least the Americans that are Facebook active users who are registered) are voting – to the rate of several hundred every second, all day long.

What about Twitter and other live feeds? We could actually follow “reports” from various self-styled correspondents and what they found during the day. The local St. Louis paper hired a few students to do just that and you could read their Tweets here:

One of the students, Ian Darnell, summed it up this way: “This is it. This is our time. This is how history has unfolded before us.” He could have said historicity, which was one of the hot search terms for yesterday.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.