Saturday, April 20, 2013

Twitter Fail? More Like People Fail...

Yes. I'm still alive.

A quick post on Twitter and the Boston Marathon bombing and manhunt. First, taking a look back at my previous posts, I really am obsessed with Twitter, aren't I? It seems to be the thing most likely to get me blogging.

The subject of today's blog is all the buzz on the Internet about Twitter's role in the events of this past week. Twitter became a site of public convergence, for information, solidarity, and mourning in the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. The images were chilling for me because I was in Boston last year for a conference, staying at the Copley Place Marriott and walking through the streets all set up for the marathon. We walked past the finish line, saw the med tents. I recognized all those streets. Granted, we left before the marathon started last year, but I still remember seeing all the runners at our hotel and out on the streets getting in those last training runs. As a very amateur runner, I fantasized about coming back some day to run in the iconic marathon myself...

Twitter and other social media became a way for the police to issue warnings to people and to gather information. I follow CNN and other news sites, and avidly followed their coverage.

And then, we had the manhunt over the last two days. As it turns out, I had some drama of my own unfolding, and I wasn't able to closely follow the minute-by-minute unfolding of events this time around. I saw some reactions from friends and celebrities and a few of the CNN updates, but really didn't get to put anything together until I watched the news conference on television at 9:30pm EST.

This morning, I saw a blog post - which I saw tweeted about, that explored the coverage on Twitter that falsely accused two young men of the heinous events at the Marathon and the killing of the MIT officer.

So, is this Twitter's failure or Tweeter's failure?

I would say that it's much more a failure on the part of those who use Twitter. The first thing that jumped out at me in watching the Marathon coverage was how quickly and how much the story changed as the day went on. And that's brings us to the first rule of journalism - and really, the first rule of any research: VERIFY. And then check the source of the verification. When I watch or read anything, I store that information away. I don't believe or disbelieve it. I wait for further evidence. I think about the source. Will this source have the access to accurate information? Will this source have an agenda of its/their own that will colour the information? Can I peel away this bias myself to get at what's really going on here?

Now it's possible that I have a unique perspective because I'm "old" or because I research for a living, but I can't believe that we can't hold people to a higher standard. I can't believe that we have to concede that people are stupid enough to believe that a tweet from some random guy is going to be accurate because the guy happens to star on a television show. Most people have played the telephone game at a party. You tell someone a secret and it gets whispered around the room until it gets back to you. By the time it gets back to you it's generally morphed into something hilarious. Random people making conjectures on twitter based on breaking news is the social media equivalent of the telephone game. It's not accurate news. It is interesting to watch the story develop.

Really important information on Twitter did seem to get out. Where families should check to be re-united. When blood donations were needed and when so many people had responded that they didn't need any more - which was shockingly soon after the call for blood went out. Where donations could be sent - and when it was a scam - that Tweeter got shut down within about an hour of first appearing. When the police needed people to stay in their homes and when it was safe to venture back out again.

Was it wrong that a missing Brown student was accused of being one of the suspects? Yes. Was that yet another horrible thing for his family to have to endure on top of his being missing in the first place? Yes. Was the twitter-verse quick to condemn this? Yes it was.

In balance, I think Twitter is still getting it right and serves a useful function in times of likes these. I have other thoughts on how Twitter has grown - or decayed - as a social medium, but I'll save those for another day. For now, I think it's important to remember that Twitter can be a powerful information tool, but it's only as effective as those who use it.

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