The day Twitter took over

Posted: April 22, 2013 by terryvandrovec in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I almost went to bed on time Thursday. Almost. But then I checked my Twitter timeline, a move that’s become as much a part of the nighttime routine as brushing teeth.

Somebody had posted something about a high-speed car chase possibly involving grenades in Boston and provided a link to the corresponding police scanner. Sounded worth checking out. So I turned on the TV, used the guide to locate CNN – that’s how often I watch it. But there wasn’t any breaking news, only an Anderson Cooper rerun. It was a similar story on MSNBC, Fox News and the other channels in that area of the digital dial and remained that way for what felt like an eternity.

But Twitter? Twitter was humming with scanner updates, eyewitness accounts, baseless speculation and jokes. Or, at least, the people who populate Twitter were.

It felt like a watershed moment in media.

No, I don’t believe that “traditional” media isn’t being topped or eliminated. The Boston Globe has been outstanding in its follow-up coverage of the event. NBC gained credibility (during a pretty crummy time in its history) for its even-handed approach in the face of a have-it-first frenzy.

It’s just that Twitter has proven itself worth of the same sort of attention as print or television in times of breaking news. The immediacy was astounding, to the point that it made CNN, for example, look out to lunch. In a matter of minutes, I’d accessed the Boston police scanner and a live feed from a Boston TV stations plus maybe 10 people providing instant updates. Some were reporters, some were ordinary people in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time. Some were accurate, some were not.

That is the most interesting caveat. Twitter has faster updates and more of them. But it also requires some intellectual effort from the users. The first set of names that people claimed were the perpetrators proved incorrect. Fake accounts were created for the purpose of raising fake funds for bombing victims. And so on.

Might people eventually grow tired of having to discern what’s true and what isn’t? Sure. Except that some in the traditional media have gotten sloppy in the race to be first – like CNN reporting incorrectly that a suspect had been arrested. If nobody is infallible then there’s extra value in immediacy.

Turns out the authorities operated with social media in mind, too, according to reports. They factored that in when deciding whether or not to release pictures of the suspect to the public, tried to consider what might happen if somebody else broke that news before the government. Fascinating. Or horrifying. Maybe somewhere in between.

I was glued to the coverage, stayed up until 4 a.m. Friday and resumed following along about 3 hours later. I never really got away from it – didn’t have to because Twitter extends well beyond the range of my cable outlet. I was seeking out and receiving up-to-the-second information and speculation on the hunt for a baby-face bomber while running on the treadmill. At one point, I got a text from my wife wondering when I would be home – she was watching cable news, but wanted to hear the latest updates from Twitter, a platform she doesn’t use and hadn’t previously valued.

Likewise, I found myself (more than once) yelling at the TV screen: “Don’t you have somebody monitoring Twitter?” That’s where the first non-anonymous confirmation that the first suspect died came from – the Twitter account of the Boston police chief.

Twitter and the people fueling it aren’t the only sources when it comes to reliable, breaking news, but the situation in Boston illustrated that they’ve become a part of the complete media equation right down to the unique strengths and weaknesses.

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Comments
  1. Rich Jensen says:

    I dunno. I also stayed up quite late following that story, but after the fact I felt kind of stupid for doing so.

    1 – I wasn’t accomplishing anything, nor was it particularly relaxing; essentially, I was getting worked up over something that I couldn’t participate in and which, for all its immediate sense of ‘importance’, in hindsight seems to have been less important (at least to me).

    2 – Despite the incredible volume of social media content generated that night, there was very little information in it. That is, everyone had access to the same info (live TV, tweets from those on location, the police scanners), and so twitter & reddit were little more than a big hollow echo chamber, full of people saying the same things over and over.

    3 – The oh-so-self-absorbed and self-satisfied voices on Reddit & Twitter that were congratulating themselves for ‘ID-ing’ the bombers, and talking up the value of ‘crowd-sourcing’ investigations like this, and so forth, was just disgusting, even before we knew that they were very very wrong. Their subsequent silence when proved wrong was also irritating—these are the same sorts of people that believe strongly in holding others accountable for their mistakes, and loudly announcing them to the world at large (not to mention their willingness to hack the websites of people and organizations they object to).

    I hadn’t before, but I have since looked at Twitter and wondered if, at some future date we are going to look at it the way we now look at the CB radio craze of the 70s.

    In hindsight I think I have a very different view, having spent much of Thursday and Friday mining a low quality ore for useful nuggets of information.

    This, like the OJ Chase, will probably up networks’ willingness to break into scheduled programming, and if it leads to more national networks turning over their broadcast to quality work done by local affiliates, and incorporating more responsible social media chatter in the broadcast, that’s not a bad outcome. The Channel 5 stream I was watching lagged twitter in announcing the capture by about two minutes which is basically simultaneous.

    But overall, I’m not going to repeat the ‘glued to twitter’ reaction to last week’s happenings; in the end there was little valuable information and a lot of background noise.

    BTW: sorry for basically writing a guest post as a reply.

  2. A lot of what you said is entirely fair. But … I found value – at least in the moment – in some of the minutia that wouldn’t have found it’s way into, say, a newspaper story about the situation. And of the “new” people that I started to follow, most were reporters or eyewitnesses. Having such easy access to their information is in the very least unique compared to other forms of media.

  3. shawnfury says:

    Today’s debacle with the AP hacked account brings up few issues: Stock market (briefly) plummets based on single fake tweet (good to know that’s where our retirement money is). Can’t Twitter do more to secure accounts, especially because it is used as such a breaking-news platform now. I think I mentioned this on podcast, but I will actually step away from Twitter sometimes during breaking events because I don’t want to be overwhelmed with info and like Rich said, it’s not relaxing. Can make you anxious on something you have no control over.

    Terry’s an information machine, which I admire.

  4. Rich Jensen says:

    It was interesting to discover that @AKitz, who had a front row seat to the shootout, was a Vikings fan from Edina, MN. But I would consider that sort of thing to be more of a ‘value-add’, then a revolutionary shift.

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