In May, Al Jazeera English will launch a daily news program driven by social media called The Stream.
Two young staffers from the show were recently on a tour of California's Silicon Valley to drum up interest and partnerships. IJNet caught up with them at a San Francisco Hacks & Hackers meetup on the role of social media in the recent Middle East revolutions.
The Stream was already in the works before events in Egypt and Tunisia led to the phrase “Facebook revolution,” but following recent events, the project took on new importance.
“Things really ramped up with events in Egypt. There was suddenly no denying how important social media was going to be,” said Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, producer and co-host of the show. “One anecdotal example: our Latin America correspondent Dima Khati exceeded the limit for 1,000 tweets a day. It became a real-time tool for reporting.”
About 60 people – plus a wandering pet cat and dog – took part in the Hacks & Hacker meetup at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts.
Other guests on the panel included Stanford grad student Rio Akasaka who shared a moving presentation of his What Do 24 Hours of Murarak Tweets Look Like? and Amir Khella, an Egyptian expat, entrepreneur and user experience designer who spoke about following the events in his home country from afar.
Ben Connors, strategist and internet guru for The Stream, said the news network still has a lot to learn about integrating social media.
“I lobbied for 48 hours to get alternative the ISPs run on our news ticker during Egypt's Internet blackout,” Connors said. “I fell asleep waiting for it, but they finally ran them.”
Though social media has been used by TV news shows for several years – scrolling viewer opinions with tweets or getting information from the ground during natural disasters – The Stream hopes to take it to a new level.
A promo clip for the new program shows tweets and pics set to a compelling drum n' bass beat, and the show hopes to make use of that dynamic river of information flowing from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The Stream will harness that information by sticking to just five stories per show as decided by the producers.
That said, The Stream is not aimed only at 20-somethings. Shihab-Eldin recounted how one of his aunts in her 60s recently joined Twitter after seeing how people used it. He predicts a “gray wave” of Twitter and Facebook users among those in the Arab world now that curiosity about these new forms of communication has been piqued.
Respecting the medium, The Stream isn't waiting until May to interact with readers. Its website already features stories ranging from a rally of journalists in Turkey to a feature on hip hop in the Arab world.
Nicole Martinelli is IJNet's English-language editor and community manager.