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Tweets from Tehran? Understanding How Twitter Handles Location

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, June 16 2009

Here's one point worth keeping in mind if your methods for keeping tabs on what's taking place in Iran include using Twitter's Advanced Search feature set to aggregate tweets from within, say, 250 miles of Tehran. The feature is itself rather neat: you can filter tweets by language and even use Google Translate to make sense of messages in languages you can't technically read (though Google Translate seems choke on Farsi). Still, it makes sense to pause and note that Twitter location is, in a great many cases, based on user input. Now, in some instances, Twitter users' location input field is auto-populated with latitude and longitude -- particularly when, it seems, you first use the service via iPhone. That's why you sometimes see something like "iPhone: 40.731818,-73.952393" as the location for someone from Brooklyn, New York you don't otherwise know to be a map geek. And Twitter seems to have plans to make more extensive use of geo-tagging pulled from GPS, cell networks, and other automated services. But they're not there yet. So even though the Twitter Search filter is based on latitude and longitude (which is why there are numbers in the URL), the search results for "near:tehran within:250mi" are taking as gospel truth wherever users tell Twitter they happen to be. In other words, unlike with what is happening with identity verification on Twitter, location on Twitter isn't today verified by IP address, GPS, or any other means. Of course, then, this means that "tweets from Tehran" or Togo or Tampa could at this point be easily be gamed, simply by users resetting their own location fields to the place in question.

Just one more thing to consider as we play CIA analyst with the flood of uncertain Iran information
out there. (I've asked Twitter Inc. to confirm my understanding of how Twitter Search is using location at this point, and I'll let you know what I hear, but I'm reasonably confident that this is an appropriate way to look at things.)