How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers. This is drawn from an email exchange with Andy Carvin, NPR senior strategist, and author of Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution.
Ideally, I'll have my laptop at the breakfast table. As of late, though, my kids have been getting up really early in the morning and setting up an awesome Egyptian pyramid toy set on the table, so I've been relegated to using my phone — assuming I don't join in and pretend to be a grave robber or something.
Usually I'm able to take advantage of the 35 minutes I spend each day on the DC Metro commuting to work before I arrive at the office. I'll typically spend that time catching up on my Twitter lists, or reading the news via the New York Times and AP iPhone apps.
Once at the office, I've got anywhere from one to four monitors available for me to use — two for my MacBook, and two for a PC machine that's at my desk. If things aren't too crazy that day, I'll just use the laptop screen, which is mostly taken up by half a dozen or so Twitter lists via Hootsuite, plus a window for viewing the latest AP and Reuters wires. I typically have the wires set up to show search results from countries I'm covering — Egypt, Syria, etc. If there's a breaking news bulletin, it'll appear on my screen in a different color, so it catches my attention.
While all of that is streaming across my screens, I also have YouTube and Facebook fired up in my browser. I subscribe to dozens of YouTube channels and Facebook groups run by revolutionaries in the Mideast, so I routinely trawl them for new footage. I have to balance how much time I commit to doing this, though — there are so many new videos coming out of Syria alone, I could probably spend all my waking moments watching new footage and never get completely caught up with them.
I usually check the New York Times, Washington Post, and Foreign Policy not long after I get to the office. Then I start making the rounds with indie news sources related to North Africa and the Middle East — Al-Monitor, Tunisia Live, Egypt Independent, Enduring America, Syria Deeply, Tahrir Squared, Jadaliyya, etc. Then I visit some of the more established sites — Ahram Online, Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, the Daily Star, the National. Often I'm drawn in because people I follow on Twitter have shared links to particular stories, but once I get to a site I usually poke around to see if there's anything else I might have missed. Then there are a random assortment of blogs, like Michael Koplow's Ottomans and Zionists — which as the name suggests, covers the intersection of Turkish and Israeli foreign policy — and the Brown Moses blog, which does an amazing job at identifying munitions being used in Syria.
I always keep track of new articles by Bassem Sabry and Sultan al Qassemi. Bassem writes about Egyptian politics and Sultan typically focuses on the Gulf. I'm also a big fan of Lauren Bohn, who's written some great stuff about the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in North Africa, and Jess Hill, who until recently was covering the region from Beirut. Mohamed El Dahshan, a young Egyptian economist who occasionally writes for Foreign Policy, is always worth a read. And for a change of pace in the region, I love Sarah Carr's Inanities blog — she's half-British, half-Egyptian and has a wickedly funny take on Egyptian politics.
Most of my social-media activity tends to cover two different angles. First, I play a role as sort of an online news anchor, covering breaking news by weaving together tweets and social-media footage by people on the ground caught in the middle of a story. While information is coming in, I often push back and ask users to help verify information. It's not unusual for multiple rumors to swirl during any breaking news story. Rather than pretending the rumors don't exist, I acknowledge them but do so in the context of questioning them. People often joke that the most common words I use on Twitter are "Confirmed?" and "Source?" — always with the question marks. That way I can insert a certain amount of skepticism and encourage my Twitter followers to be skeptical until we have more evidence one way or another.
Second, I often ask my Twitter followers to take an active role in helping me cover the news. If there's new footage allegedly showing an attack in Syria, I ask them to scrutinize it: look for landmarks, identify accents or dialects, analyze it for deceptive edits, etc. I've worked with hundreds and hundreds of Twitter followers over the last couple of years to authenticate footage and debunk rumors. I think it gives them a vested interest in my work.
Along with the people I've mentioned already, I'm always paying attention to accounts like @brainpicker, @margafret, @jeremyscahill, @youranonnews, @davidkenner, @rachelsklar, @lrozen, @abuaardvark, @moftasa, @alexismadrigal, @Awl, @theonion, @Max_Fisher, @Krupali, @AntDeRosa, @techsoc. Many of them focus on either the Mideast or news more broadly, and others are just cool to follow.
In the case of the Arab revolutions, it's always easier to start with one person you know and go from there. In Egypt, for example, I started with one activist I already knew — @alaa — and scanned the list of people he follows. At the bottom of that list are the very first people he ever followed, so I surmised they were important to him. So I followed them, and repeated the process. Meanwhile, I paid attention to how all of these people used Twitter — who they retweeted or interacted with the most, who they used emoticons with (suggesting familiarity), etc. Pretty quickly I was able to build up a solid list of contacts. In contrast, a country like Libya took a lot of phone and Skype calls, as I didn't know any Libyans. I made contacts with the Libyan expat community in places like Chicago, Kentucky, and Atlanta, and they gave me all sorts of solid leads.
Much of the time, I also try to find out what hashtags sources on the ground are using – especially if the hashtag hasn't become mainstream yet. Once it goes mainstream or trends on Twitter, it often gets filled with too much spam and other distractions. And in some cases, proximity searches can be useful, though Twitter's search engine often throws in a bunch of false positives when searching by location. To get around this, I search for phrases that people might use when surprised by an event, like "What the fuck was that?" following an earthquake. I also try to search for landmarks nearby, as locals might use those landmarks as reference points during a breaking news event.
When it comes to books, I'm finally getting around to reading A Game of Thrones. I've absolutely loved the HBO series, and reached the point that I probably couldn't get any more insight into the characters without reading the book. I'm about halfway through and am loving it. I'm also reading Reporting the Revolutionary War. It's an amazing collection of newspaper articles from the American colonies and England during the war, and has really opened my eyes to what journalism was like during the period. Meanwhile, every few years or so I get the urge to re-read Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, including Master and Commander. They're an extraordinary literary accomplishment, though a nautical dictionary comes in handy when reading them.
As for TV, like I mentioned, I'm a big Game of Thrones fan. I'm rewatching the first two seasons for probably the fourth time now. I've really enjoyed Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, though SoA has always been more of a guilty pleasure than anything else. I'm generally not a reality TV person, but Pawn Stars is addictive — kinda like an Antiques Roadshow, but with a lot more tattoos and cursing. Lately I've been enjoying Dark Matters, which re-enacts famous scientific discoveries that went awry. The re-enactments are often very tongue-and-cheek, adding to the dark humor of it all. As for news, I don't watch much of it on TV any more, apart from the occasional CNN, Al Jazeera, or Frontline episode.
One of my favorite bands, The Mars Volta, broke up recently, so I've been taking solace by listening to their previous band, At The Drive-In. Their album Relationship of Command is one of the most underrated alt-rock releases of the last 20 years. There's also this guy named Doug Hilsinger who remade Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) a few years ago. I'd never heard of the guy and haven't heard anything by him since, but I absolutely love the remake album. I'd argue it's even better than the original. Other albums often playing: Buke and Gase's Riposte, the last couple of Passion Pit albums, tUnE-yArDs, the Black Keys, and Rush's Clockwork Angels, which is arguably their best album in the last 30 years.
Lastly, a shout-out to Rocky Mountain Tunes for Rocky Mountain Kids by Jeff Kagan. I've got two young kids, ages 4 and 6, and it's often a challenge to find music that we'll all listen to in the car. (They seem to like the Beastie Boys a lot, so at least we've got that covered.) Then my mother-in-law, who lives in Colorado, sent us this disc by children's singer Jeff Kagan. All the songs are about animals, the environment and the Rocky Mountains. He really geeks out on the science, and he's actually a really good songwriter. We just drove from D.C. to Boston and back this past week, and we nearly wore out the CD without ever getting sick of it. So if you've got young kids, check it out.