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RNC Protest Twitterer "Dispatches" from 1,800 Miles Away

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, September 5 2008

I just got off the phone with "notq," a Twitterer who served as an information hub during this week’s St. Paul protests around the Republican National Convention, as I detailed yesterday.

As a point person for on-the-ground information, notq served as a node through which a great deal of tear gas notices, police instructions, and tactical information flowed. But here’s the rather remarkable thing: he was doing it all from Tempe, Arizona, some 1,800 miles away from the Twin Cities. notq, a.k.a. Nathan Oyler, is a politically active Linux administrator opposed to the Iraq War and the Bush Administration. He was a central point through which critical information passed via Twitter -- and he wasn't even there.

"I was dispatch," he says.

Nathan, who I contacted several times for an interview while I was in St. Paul this week, was taking in all the action on the ground though Qik live-streaming video from a local citizens media collective called the Uptake, others on the scene streaming video online, and traditional media news reports. His goal, he says, was to aide those on the scene, particularly medics, legal observers, and journalists, who were "happy to avoid getting tear gassed."

"It was an entirely organic thing for me," he says. He began simply enough: appending the hash tag #RNC08 to untagged protest-related tweets so that they would pop-up on the C-SPAN RNC ’08 Convention Hub. (C-SPAN reports 17,357 posts from 1366 different Twitter accounts that used the #RNC08 tag.) That modest action was a way of channeling information to where he thought it belong. From there, his involvement grew. And his number of followers grew along with it, from something like 70 last week to more than 300 as the week progressed.

He evolved into using the official Twitter Search engine to find relevant information. "When there was a protest outside the state capitol," he says, "I had 'capitol,' I had 'cops,' I had 'arrest.' When Wabasha was important," -- Wabasha Street, the site of some of the protest action -- "I was looking up 'Wabasha.'" When he found what seemed credible and useful, he "retweeted" or republished it, which was picked up and then passed along by those on the scene.

"I would watch the video and report back on it. I was talking to journalists and I would direct them to the right places. As the information came out, it was morphed into whoever was listening to me and I would put it on there. If it was credible, I would retweet it."

At times and in the frenzy of the situation, Nathan didn’t know who was feeding him information, whether they were protestors or press. He wasn't alone in his confusion. Democracy Now radio host Amy Goodman, Associated Press photographers Matt Rourke and Evan Vucci, and other reporters credentialed for the Xcel Center who were, in echoes of the Chicago Democratic Convention in the summer of 1968, were swept up in an arrest during the events outside. Goodman was detained while reportedly shouting "I'm press! Press!"

It's fascinating to examine just how information flowed.

Take, for example, a Twitterer by the handle of "zucchinipants" who offered some first-hand insight into reports that undercover law enforcement might be sporting white headphones while milling about. Having spent part of the week in the protest zone, zucchinipants sent out this note: "@notq fwiw, I saw a UC cop with those headphones (look like iPod but probably comms) in rice park." A Twitterer by the name of "mspdude" contributed this: "@notq don't know if the ipod guy was police or just trying to cause chaos. Everyone was yelling not to take the bait (@ J Ireland x 12th)."

PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (@newshour) was sending people towards @notq and the @theuptake's reports on Twitter, and even, it seems directing their resources based on the tweets pouring in: "@notq We're sending someone now... Marion & St. Anthony?" When I ask who else he knew to be following his reports, he says that he knows to be medics, journalists, and some protesters, but beyond that, he says, he's not altogether sure who made up his wider audience.

Asked if he's visited the Twin Cities, Nathan says, "I've never been there." Given that the scene in St. Paul this week was rather chaotic and spread out geographically, he may have had one of the best vantage points available. It's tough to cover an event as unscripted as a political protest, and to keep your wits about you while in the muddle. Police were on the scene were distributing out information, but it wasn't making its way throughout the crowd. But it was filtering out through Twitter.

Nathan suggests that what he learned this week about using Twitter might be applied to covering election day and voting irregularities. During recent elections, including 2004, a lack of information flow hampered voting oversight efforts.  

Note: In the interest of tracking reaction, I'm attaching the hash tag of #twitterdispatch to this post, as per the recommendation of John Joseph Bachir on, naturally, Twitter.