Follow Friday: Universal Hub
— Adam Gaffin (@universalhub) March 25, 2015
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Over the past few years, Twitter has shifted from a casual social networking site to a news Mecca. When figuring out if latest the MBTA delays are impacting the morning commute (answer: probably) or finding out what’s going on with that mysterious cloud of smoke downtown, Twitter has become a go-to source for information. Adam Gaffin, founder and operator of the online news service Universal Hub, connects those with questions to answers via Twitter. What started as a news blog about six years ago has grown to a Twitter community of more than 41,000 followers eager to ask and answer each others’ inquiries in split seconds, from where to get the best BBQ in Boston to the latest updates on Keytar Bear. We caught up with Gaffin to talk about crowdsourcing, breaking news, and just how awesomely bizarre our city is.
How did you get started with Universal Hub?
Initially it was a hobby site. I was basically just interested in the fact that there were so many good writers in the Boston area who were blogging, so I started doing a digest of it. Gradually, it became more of a news-oriented site, and when I got laid off from a full-time editing job in 2009, I had to figure out what to do, so I just started doing it full-time.
Was that also when you started on Twitter? How did the social media portion come into play?
Twitter—at first I wasn’t doing very much with it. I would just automatically retweet what I posted on the site. Nobody was responding to that because it was obvious that it was automated [with] no person behind it. I eventually turned that off, and got involved in conversations. That’s when things took off. Probably the first big thing was when there was an explosion in Weston where one of the main aqueducts blew up, and basically we lost 80 percent of our water supply. All of a sudden, people were not only sending me questions about what was going on, but if I didn’t have answers, I would retweet the questions, and people would reply. And I was like, ‘Woah, this is an amazing thing.’ That was my first big experience with using Twitter.
You do a lot of crowdsourcing of questions, and you seem to act as a connection between people and answers. The explosion in Weston was how that got started?
Yes. When I first got started, news was like you were standing up on a mountain yelling down to the people in the valley once a day [about] what the news was. Now, it’s really a conversation. Everybody’s walking around with a camera, everybody’s looking around, and when they see something, they’ll take a picture. They may not know exactly what they’re looking at, but they’ll post it, and then somebody out there knows what they’re looking at. Before you know it, you’re covering news. It’s just not the traditional way of doing it.
In addition to Twitter, you have a Facebook and Flickr. How do you manage the various accounts, and what are the various goals of them?
On the Facebook account, I basically post headlines there. I haven’t really done a lot with it. Where that’s really taken off is I have this thing called the French Toast Alert, which is how panicked you should get before a blizzard or something. Should you be rushing to the store and trampling little old ladies to get the last gallon of milk? On Facebook, this past winter, that really took off. Everybody’s affected by the weather. People found it on Facebook, and it became like its own community as opposed to just the Universal Hub Facebook page, which doesn’t get a lot of interaction with folks. But for that one specific thing, it’s great. Flickr is a little bit quieter now. That is where I first started crowdsourcing photos. People who post photos and tag it to Universal Hub, that would give me permission to use their photos on the website. I think it’s been largely surpassed by in my case, Twitter, and in some cases Instagram.
When people tweet at you, do you retweet all of those questions you receive, or is do you have a way of filtering or limiting them?
Twitter has gotten large enough that I’m not going to retweet everything that’s tweeted to me, maybe because some of its really obnoxious. But another advantage of Twitter is that somebody posts a question, and I retweet it and get lots of answers. Then, two weeks later, somebody else has the same question. Rather than just letting things float around Twitter—because Twitter is really kind of horrible for research—I’ve been taking the Twitter questions and answers, and posting them on Universal Hub in a question-and-answer section. So the next time that question comes up, instead of retweeting it, I can just send a link to the answer. Like today, somebody asked where they could get really great southern BBQ in Boston, and apparently this is a very popular topic, so I’ve already collected a bunch of the answers on the page on Universal Hub.
Can you describe the voice and tone of your social media in three words?
What’s happening now. The breaking news part is an amazing thing. Even just yesterday, I was on the bus coming home from downtown, and I started seeing these pictures of smoke in the Seaport area. It turned out it was a brush fire and no one was hurt, no buildings were burned or anything like that. It just sort of fed on itself. I posted pictures and other people responded to them with pictures. People who actually knew what was going on were able to fill in that detail.
What’s the most outspoken or memorable feedback you’ve ever gotten via social media?
One of the most memorable things [happened during] the week of the Marathon bombing, the Friday when they shut down the city and people just started tweeting photos of empty streets. Downtown Crossing with nobody in it. Mass Ave or Cambridge Street with no people and no cars on it. I think that showed something that I don’t think we would have seen online even just a few years ago, at least not that quickly—instantly creating the story that was happening right that second.
Personally, what’s your favorite thing that you’ve shared on social media?
[There’s] not a single specific thing, but one of the things that I love—and people obviously know this—is quirky stuff. There was someone standing at Charles MGH wearing a giant Obama head. It was startling. It was a really realistic-looking head. That’s just bizarre. There’s so much bizarre stuff like that. There’s no way I could find any of that by myself, but there’s hundreds of people out there wandering around. Keytar Bear—I’m still fascinated by him even though I’ve probably run about a gazillion pictures of him. The fact that he’s out there, there’s people who love him, and they follow him. It’s that kind of thing that’s humanizing the city beyond the standard and depressing crime news. There is more out there than just straight news.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.