Saturday, March 14, 2009

Some Thoughts on Twitter and Birding

Over the past week, Gunnar Engblom posted two primers on how Twitter can be used by birders. I recommend both of them, especially for readers who are not familiar with microblogging. You can read them at his blog: An introduction and Twitter, hashtags and RSS feeds.

Twitter is a webapp that enables users to post short updates ("tweets") about where they are or what they are doing. Updates are limited to 140 characters but may include links to more information or hashtags to make related posts easier to find. For example, #birds links to a page listing recent tweets about birds. (Gunnar explains how to use hashtags in more detail.) A user can choose to follow other users and in turn can attract followers. At its best, it is a tool for users in disparate locations to participate in conversations about shared interests or current events.

Once per week Rare Bird Alerts (RBAs), while still useful, are usually "old news" by the time they hit the hotlines. Currently they act as a summary of the sightings posted on local email lists and reports from refuges that maintain sightings logs. Email lists have already replaced RBAs as a primary source for rare bird information. Meanwhile, eBird is challenging the primacy of email-based notifications with its rare bird gadget and rarity map.

So how does Twitter relate to RBAs? As with mailing lists, birders can tweet their rare bird sightings in time for other birders to visit the location and see the bird. One can even provide real-time updates (possibly with photos!) by posting via cell phone. Because of this, Twitter has real potential as a rare bird alert system, especially in areas with a significant number of birders who use the webapp. As Gunnar argues, birders in a state or region can mark their tweets with relevant hashtags (e.g., "#njbrd") to make it easier for others to track rare bird tweets.

However, Twitter is not able to replace email-based networks just yet. While Twitter activity has soared in the past few months, especially with the recent media boost, there are still relatively few people using it, both among the population generally and birders specifically. Even among social media enthusiasts, there are a lot more people on Facebook or MySpace. Twitter also must compete with an array of similar microblogging services like There are some social networks that cater specifically to birders, the best of which is ChirpTracker (currently in invitation-only beta). So far, we do not have a good way to collate the activity streams coming from all these various services, which makes it difficult to rely on them for rare bird information.

That said, I think that Twitter is a great service and has a lot of potential for birders to communicate with each other. ChirpTracker may turn out to be more useful for rare bird posts, since it features built-in mapping functions and will make it easier to find other local users in the near future. I could see either or them, or perhaps a webapp yet to be unveiled, supplanting email lists once they build up a large enough user base.

If you are on Twitter, or join in the future, you can follow my tweets at Find other birders via the Twitter birdwatchers' group. If you would like to try ChirpTracker, you can request an invitation at the website or by joining Twitter and sending a message to @chirptracker.