Sunday, March 2, 2008

The birth of a buzz, live

I've been dreaming for some time to follow on the web the birth of a buzz, and evaluate the reaction of the tools dedicated to their analysis and detection. I would have prefered better circumstances, but I was able to do it for the tragedy of the Northern Illinois University shooting two weeks ago.

The name of the gunman was not published on the evening of the drama. But 10 hours later, the Chicago Tribune provided
enough elements to guess it on their website
. Of course they wrote quite hypocritically:
The Tribune is not naming the gunman because police have not officially completed the identification of his body.
A simple search for articles co-signed by Jim Thomas with the keywords "self-injury" and "prison" would identify the suspect: Steve Kazmierczak. At 8:10GMT, a visitor of the Wikipedia modifies the article about the shooting to add that name. 30 minutes later, a first blog post cites it, its author updates it many times to add other info found on the net. The name appears then in a live journal and on a forum, and at 10:33 is cited by the Daily Mail (the article has been update since). Then people start to google it a lot, and it reaches the top of the "hot trends" list. It's then cited by some splogs, which apparently make money by citing those trends sometimes with extracts of web pages about it, retrieved automatically. At 14:42, the Associated Press announces that the police gave the name: Steven Kazmierczak. I stopped following the buzz there, as articles or webpages about it then used "Steve", "Steven" or "Stephen".

Anyway, following the first hours gave me the opportunity to see how fast the web reacted. As I mentioned it, the Wikipedia first gave the name. Once more we can wonder about the ethics of the project, and note that it has become THE place to find the latest scoops. See how reactive it is to the death of a celebrity? You can even use the Wikirage tool, which put on top of its hot article list on February 13: Henri Salvador, Imad Mougniyah, et Badri Patarkatsishvili.

About the blogosphere tools, one can notice that BlogPulse isn't very responsive. Of course Google Blogsearch detects quite fast the first blogpost on the topic, in a Blogpost blog... However Blogsearch and Technorati seem to have a similar efficiency: the Technorati curve is a bit higher after 2PM because of some splogs, which Google Blogsearch didn't display (on purpose, i.e. better splog detection?).

The reaction of search engines on the "Steve Kazmierczak" request is also quite interesting. They don't detect the buzz in the first hours, except Google. Even if it's not very clear on the graph, the number of relevant results increases from 61 at 10:30 to 68 at 4PM (and those new pages deal indeed with the gunman). But this contrasts with the big rise of the total number of results, which reinforces the mystery on Google numbers. Did the number of pages for this request really double in 5 hours, or is it just a suspicious approximation?

But the most important may be in the Google Trends curves. Before the press dared to give the gunman's name, before Wikipedia learned of it, before the tabloids found out, Google knew, with the first searches on the name less than 3 hours after the shooting. Their leadership over other search engines also gives them a direct access to information, and their tools are ready to treat this as much as they can. With geolocation in particular, to determine the origin of requests, and maybe identify a local buzz. So when will Google launch a press agency or a tabloid, to uncover scoops and rumors hours before the Daily Mail? And who can access those Google Trends data live today? On the website, the curves are currently updated after 48 hours, not available for words not searched enough, the horizontal scale is not explained (I'm guessing that the 4AM dot represents the number of searches from 3AM to 4AM but I may be wrong), without even mentioning the lack of a vertical scale! A Google Trends API may give the possibility to access this data, and give back to the internauts the knowledge learned from them.

This post was originally published in French: Suivi en direct de la naissance d'un buzz.
The data I gathered and used for the graphs (OpenOffice Spreadsheet file)

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