I watched the explosions in Boston unfold tonight as many people online do when there’s news afoot.
A habit of many years now when something like this happens, I’ll pick up online threads and look at how things are being reported, the pace and style and what people seem to be doing with information.
Old habits do die hard, within minutes of seeing a tweet, I had a notepad to hand and various news outlets streaming to listen to what was happening.
I checked in with friends in Boston, runners, students, online contacts. It was my first port of call to see if people I know were ok. They are. Many people were not so lucky.
Then the usual work training kicked in. Look at the sources, look at the images, read tweets for eyewitness accounts. Nobody knew what was going on other than explosions and fear.
My Twitter stream is filled with people who now monitor news through social media. It’s a very tight echo chamber. So I looked at the wider notes there via #boston hashtags and the like.
As ever the shape was appearing, a short and narrow tail in, whipped up into a much higher volume as people caught on or started checking in. We’ve all seen it before a number of times – goes like this –
*People say something happened
*People report they heard that something happened
*News organisations confirm that something happened along with trusted organisations like police and emergency services
*Images and eyewitness accounts circulate
*Rumours, fakes and misinformation circulates
*Accusations and verification claims appear
*Folk tell each other what they should and should not be talking about
*Links to analysis start to appear
*Tweets fall into a bit of a mess hitting a critical mass and it’s time to sit back and look at the wider picture.
Mind over matter
For the first time for me, I watched this with a growing feeling of rage. Not at the people online, but at the event. I’ve seen a few years of tragic events and attacks, I’ve felt worse but I’ve never been angry. The argument about personal links to events, whether I empathise with different groups or not probably comes into play here. I’m not going to self-analyse, but it probably didn’t help with clear thinking.
I checked in at home and had a chat with Knight Senior, he’s talked me through many situations over the years.
“Haven’t you seen blood like that before?” he asked sardonically. He’s right. All this and more in so many different places and shocking levels of violence. Maybe a devil sick of sin. But he’s also pretty sharp. Years ago he told me that the day I felt nothing about the events I covered, was the day to stop. So, it might be rage this time, but at least that is human.
Off-topic for who?
I went back to looking at the news. By now there were accusations of fake accounts calling for donations relating to the marathon. I’d seen people capitalise on hashtags before, joining the fray to promote something inappropriate, but asking for money, that was a new one on me.
Meanwhile friends updated here and there about handbags, boyfriends, meal planning. It seemed off-topic, an irritant, but it’s natural. Life outside of an event goes on and just because I have my face deep in the news bucket, doesn’t mean everyone has to. The use of Twitter is not always consumption but also broadcast. I don’t expect people to look both ways before they Tweet.
One amusing update noted something along the lines of “When you post something mundane and then see the news.” It was like that.
Right to report
The crossfire online got a little heavier when it came to claiming an outlet for a particular reason. Basically tech blogs scrapping over whether it was appropriate to cover the events in Boston. People will get their news online from wherever they like these days, it sure attracts clicks when it’s a breaking news story, but if the tone and angle are valid, I don’t see a problem.
The Verge added Boston to their 90 second roundup. That might seem questionable to those who feel coverage might not belong on a tech blog, but something big and tragic happened and it would set the tone for any roundup report. I guess it’s an editor’s call. A blatant attempt to attract clicks with a keyword is easily spotted and ignored, in the long run if it’s really unsuitable or adds nothing new, I don’t think it would be valuable to a site in the end.
Similarly there were complaints about scheduled tweets. Companies work with marketers and set up neat ways of releasing information or advertising on a timer. Most of the time this can be easily ignored or consumed, but when your timeline is filled with horrors, an advertorial about an upcoming event or discount is jarring.
There were calls for companies to turn off their scheduled tweets. However, this was from a group that had invested time in the breaking news story. I wonder if others following along but less interested in the news were so bothered. (There are people less interested in the news, I’ve met them…once, maybe.)
As social media moves on as a way to report breaking news and we become more familiar with the game, another area of conflict appears and I think it is based on personal reactions.
Checking sources is important. Verification online is something that I have worked at, trained others on and spoken about before. It’s no longer about “two sources to confirm” – how many different sources can rip and clip an untruth these days?
However, preaching about repeating suspect information is a bit like shouting at noisy crowd. The images and information that travel the fastest are usually the more sensational. In this case the bloodiest, the more emotive and those which can more easily extract outrage. It’s like news gossip, people are still drawn to sensationalism, we’ve been conditioned to for so long, think tabloid in short form.
In paper form, this used to be shrugged at by old hacks. “This will be tomorrow’s chip paper”, I was told as a cub. Indeed once the hot flush has moved on digitally, the erroneous Tweets are often forgotten until a problem is spotted further down the line. Then digital archiving and finger-pointing can begin all over again.
Which news agenda?
There is also conflict about the attention given to one story over another. Many of the people follow on Twitter are based in Europe or the United States, in fact, it’s not always easy to find people to follow who are based in conflict zones. Not impossible, but naturally fewer and often with much less in the way of freedom to communicate.
So the cards are stacked. More people appeared to be talking about Boston than the bombs in Baghdad. Fatigue is an unfortunate response to news, but it does happen. Tragedies continue and audiences lose interest as much as news organisations no longer report on them as frequently. Though with reporting online, those who are still interested can find an outlet that is still reporting. Maybe there is a positive.
More interestingly this time, digital vigilantism seemed to be appearing. While there were calls by police forces for video footage and images taken earlier in the day, public information lines basically. However, online amateur detectives were also starting to look at what was available.
It’s not so surprising when loosely affiliated groups online have already been trying to solve crimes or performed acts of retaliation and protest. But I had not seen this happen with such immediacy before. I wonder about this trend.
Life in a live page
Meanwhile, the news organisations were in full swing running live pages. These sources now show comments, images and updates extracted from social media sources as well as reports from staff and official outlets like press conferences and emergency services.
I can’t say that I watch them for too long anymore. Personally I find the layout and presentation problematic and the time shift between the actual updates and the reposting on a news site creates a kind of uncanny valley for news consumption, it’s almost but not quite live.
What is useful and to who?
Quite a few years ago when I first started looking at blogs for news events and then social platforms, it seemed a matter of finding the information, any of it, all of it and reaching people who could tell that story.
Maybe four years ago, it became a tricky ground with assorted mainstream news outlets an independent reporters all pouncing on eyewitnesses asking for contact details and more.
Now I wonder about what is useful.
Not everyone watches Twitter for news. The six and nine o’clock bulletins are still an update point for people who are not junkies for the stream. That’s a time when analysis shines brightly, context over panic and fact checking over trigger reactions to the awfulness of a situation.
For the more digital consumer, a wild mass of information is now available. It feels less about choosing which individual update but more about choosing which outlet to help you aggregate and understand.
A bombing like this is not going to be something most of us can understand emotionally. So we choose who we want to tell us this story, maybe supplement it with the raw material.
From a newscaster now though, I wondered what was chosen and what was useful. On which stage of a scale of violence was I satisfied when seeing the images today? On what level of outrage or information?
The infighting and finger-pointing, the preaching of what to post and what not to say didn’t help me to understand what was going on. It clouded my way to useful information.
It puts me in mind of the saying, ‘If you can’t say nothin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all’ – but this time, ‘If you can’t say something right, don’t say it at all’. But this doesn’t do much for the varied reasons why people use social media.
In between Twitter and the mainstream
Social media is an outlet where we find news, but it is not a news outlet. So the mix and the fray are not going to be tidy and useful. Not without a little work. I guess this brings me back to finding our own trusted sources. Are they still the mainstream news for confirmation of social sources and clarity?
Twitter might be faster, but it’s becoming busier and harder to read with conflicts, adverts, fake accounts and more in the mix attached to hashtags and free in the wild.
But mainstream is slower, out of time a little, even though it’s often better for analysis and in-depth comment from official sources.
Maybe there is room for a method of categorisation, a step in between these two places.
I’m tired and rambling and trying to make sense of what I see. There was something a bit different about this event unfolding online and I’m not sure I have put my finger on it.
You can’t take yourself out of a news story. Yes you can be as objective as possible in the reporting, but I know I am tired of seeing such hateful acts performed upon innocent people. I was not good at ‘news’ today. Too angry and too tired.
When we read any news story from any source our frame of mind colours our perception. Maybe tomorrow my frame of mind will bring some clarity, I know the news after 24 hours is always clearer than today.