Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Twitter for news

Last year, during the G20 session in Toronto, the ground shook. I first wondered if some political bombing or subway crash had occurred. News sites seemed jammed...but Twitter started showing an increasing number of people asking "was that an earthquake?" and "did you feel that tremor, too?"

Within three minutes I knew that indeed an earthquake had occurred, with the epicenter in Quebec just outside Ottawa and that it had been felt as far east as New York City, as far north as Barrie, as far west as Detroit and as far south as Baltimore, just because I could see the tweets of real people in real time.

This is different from Facebook, because I was not "friends" with any of these people. Had my view of the world been limited just to my "friends" it'd have been a very geographically weighted scope given most of my "friends" are in the same city as me.

This "open communication platform" is different than just about anything that has ever come before it. In the history of human communication, no previous platform has supported the ability for the average person to be able to engage a conversation, in real time, with strangers. I did not need to know a specific person's phone number; or the code to patch into some previously-arranged teleconference; I did not need to be following any person or group particularly.

During any event that is watched globally (Olympics, American presidential election vote coverage, the plane that emeregency landed in the Hudson River followed by the rescue of all its passengers...) the ability for the average person to engage conversation, in real time, with anyone else on the planet, is unprecedented.

From smoke signals to cuneiform to the Gutenberg press to the telegraph, to radio, to TV to mobile phone communication...there has never been anything like Twitter.

And, it scales from big global events to local happenings. I was reminded of this when, just the other night, I was out and was curious about what was happening at the Rex Jazz Blues Bar. While their website provided a monthly calendar, I could feel the vibes from tweets on the Dave McMurdo tribute, and one tweet even reminded me that there was no cover, just come on down and enjoy.

In other words, the real-time aspect of Twitter provides an intimacy, and an immediacy, and an authenticity to the nature of shared information. For me, before I make a move these days, I check Twitter for public transit or traffic issues, as I'm much more likely to know what's happening on the ground "right now" than some sanitized report through the PR department's main stream media releases.

Granted, it's not always "truth". The other day, there was a shooting at transit station in the east end of the city. Some were tweeting that the station was shut down as a result, but I was there, and buses and RT trains were moving through, although having to shuffle where they picked up and dropped off riders since the south-east segment had been cordoned off due to police investigation. I was able, however, to toss in my two cents and let people know that the station was not shut down.

This is but one more nifty feature about Twitter - it's open, decentralized, and in aggregate becomes an honest capturing of what's going on. When 300 people in two countries across a 1,000 km radius all ask "what was that shake?" within a 2 minute time span, I know it wasn't a subway crash in Toronto. What other single event could it be?

Yes, the meteorological affirmation and subsequent coverage would eventually get to us from "the authorities" but, during those 18 seconds and the ensuing two minutes of wondering "what the heck was that?", there was a place I could go to reach out and connect to others experiencing the same thing, and put together a rough idea of what was going on - and that place was Twitter.

The key thing to watch is the interplay between Twitter and the media establishment. There will be times when Twitter goes off wrong, and it takes confirmation from the media to correct the false information. A hoax over the Independence Day weekend announced that the American president had died and, what's more, it was a media Twitter account that had been hacked. That false report was subsequently corrected.

When Michael Jackson died, news first broke via Twitter, but there was naturally shock and doubt and the world waited for the media establishment to verify the tragic news. Human nature is such that Twitter can be abused, as news can now spread around the planet more quickly than ever before, long before that news is ever researched and verified as truth. We will continue to need the media institution to use its sources and resources to help us validate truth.

By the same token, there are plenty of examples, not only of real stories being squelched, but also of 

By the same token, there are plenty of examples, not only of real stories being squelched, but als
o of mainstream media essentially disseminating lies in response to some external pressures

Socio-politically, it's important for society that open communication is supported. Yes, censorship and ratings are a part of free society, and hate communication cannot hide behind free speech rights...but truth in news is not a given 100% of the time, and technology that helps people connect and share information can be a force for good.


DA said...

Once again, a tremor shook the office. Everyone starts asking "was that an earthquake?" The first place I go is Twitter, of course! And sure enough, the same question pops up again and again...all over Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Barrie, Mississauga, Hamilton, St. Catherines, Western New York just a few minutes, communication from countless real people I do not know, I can see it was not some local, isolated event, but a regional phenomenon. Twitter shines in bringing strangers together into a real-time conversation.