Knight Lab is a joint initiative of journalists and computer programmers to design tools and apps, specially aimed at journalists, publishers and “media makers”. Every tool is open source and delightfully simple to access and operate. Some projects help their users to gather data, others to present it and yet others to analyse and interpret it. TwXplorer (Northwestern University Knight Lab, 2013), the tool that will be evaluated here, gathers data from Twitter according to your search term and presents the results in an aesthetic and comprehensible manner.
According to The Atlantic,
“Information flows through Twitter in dynamic, interconnected ways. That complexity has brought about, from historians, tools to try to capture this stream, and from journalists, tools to try to distill it.
[TwXplorer] does both.”(Meyer, 2013)
How does twXplorer do this? First, a Twitter account is required. The user signs into twXplorer through his Twitter account and is directed to the TwXplorer page. He then types a term into the search box. This term can be a hashtag (#digitalhumanities), a mention (@dhnow) or simply a word.
TwXplorer then trawls Twitter for the 500 most recent results of the search term, and presents them to the user. It omits unedited retweets, instead explaining that, for example, 380 tweets and 120 retweets were found. The page is divided into several columns: the left column displays the latest tweets from the results; the center column, the most common terms; the right column, the most popular hashtags and the bottom column, any links mentioned in the tweets. To narrow down his results, the user can click on any subset of terms or hashtags. He then only sees results within that specific term. TwXplorer also offers the functions of taking a snapshot of the results and sharing them.
After conducting a few searches on twXplorer, I can easily comprehend the value of this tool for anyone interested in public opinion and/or current affairs, with journalists particularly in mind. This tool is able to summarise on a single page the popularity and relevance of countless search terms, thus giving a fairly accurate representation of the world’s opinion(s) on the subject:
“At its core, twXplorer is a tool for searching Twitter in order to understand the global conversation about a topic.” (O’ Donovan, 2013)
One could say that twXplorer is similar to Wikipedia in the way that it is one of the most convenient tools available for finding the context of a particular search – on Twitter. By quickly scanning through the most popular words and phrases associated with one’s search term, one can easily gain an accurate representation of the conversation surrounding the topic. This aspect has indubitably helped twXplorer find its niche amidst the plethora of tweet-filtering, -displaying and -analysing tools available on the market.
“There’s no better free tool for understanding the conversation around an individual search quickly, thanks to the way the search functions and the way the results are graphically displayed.”(Holt, 2014)
The usefulness of a tool like twXplorer is further proven by its positive reception; in its first two weeks, twXplorer had approximately 13,000 users (Graff, 2013). Lauren Dugan, longtime journalist on social media affairs, claims that “TwXplorer does Twitter Search better than Twitter”. She explains the immense value of Twitter for journalists , calling it an “information powerhouse”. However, she says, one must be adept at fine-tuning one’s search in order to find the most relevant tweets:
“But the real trick for most users is not getting at information… it’s getting at the right information.”(Dugan, 2013)
In essence, twXplorer gives one the ability to view, analyse and save “cross-sections of Twitter, frozen in time” (Meyer, 2013). The snapshot function on twXplorer can be used to save multiple snapshots of the same search term over a series of intervals (be it hours, days or weeks) and then compare and contrast them. TwXplorer could thus be used alongside another one of KnightLab’s laudable tools, Timeline (Northwestern University Knight Lab, 2013). Timeline is a pretty, intuitive tool for constructing timelines; it is mainly used for news stories. If, for example, one wished to display the fluctuating popularity, relevance and/or content of a hashtag, term or mention, one could simply take snapshots of the twXplorer results of the search at various intervals and then display them using Timeline. The resulting timeline would illustrate not only the varying popularity of the hashtag, but also the context in which it was being used – maybe this context changed over time?
That said, there are still many improvements that could be made to twXplorer. Suggestions have been made to include a location search, the ability to search within a particular timeframe, the option to add tweets from the search to Storify or Storyboard and sentiment analysis. The ability to schedule searches for a certain time would also be useful, especially when trying to collect statistics at regular intervals for a search term (Graff, 2013).
TwXplorer is indubitably an essential tool for anyone scouring the Twitter “powerhouse”. Its ability to both be a search engine and give an invaluable background to a Twitter conversation is unique.
Dugan, L. (2013), twXplorer Does Twitter Search Better Than Twitter. Available at: http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/twxplorer-twitter-search/491052?red=at [Accessed 8th Feb. 2016].
Graff, R. (2013), What’s next for twXplorer? Help us decide. Available at: http://knightlab.northwestern.edu/2013/10/09/whats-next-for-twxplorer-help-us-decide/ [Accessed 8th Feb. 2016].
Holt, N. (2014), Six social search tools to help journalists find and analyze trends on Twitter. Available at: http://knightlab.northwestern.edu/2014/06/09/six-social-search-tools-to-help-journalists-find-and-analyze-trends-on-twitter/ [Accessed 8th Feb. 2016].
Meyer, R. (2013), A New, Free Tool Lets You Analyze and Archive Twitter Simultaneously. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/a-new-free-tool-lets-you-analyze-and-archive-twitter-simultaneously/279748/ [Accessed 8th Feb. 2016].
Northwestern University Knight Lab (2013), TimelineJS. Available at: https://projects.knightlab.com/projects/timeline-class-project [Accessed 8th Feb. 2016].
Northwestern University Knight Lab (2013), twXplorer. Available at: https://projects.knightlab.com/projects/twxplorer-class-project [Accessed 8th Feb. 2016].
O’ Donovan, C. (2013), A new tool for Twitter search out of the Knight Lab portrays trends in a single picture. Available at: http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/09/a-new-tool-for-twitter-search-out-of-the-knight-lab-portrays-trends-in-a-single-picture/ [Accessed 8th Feb. 2016].