CTRL+d: Internet, social media redefine breaking news—part one

August 12, 2009

When U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crash-landed in the Hudson River in January, Janis Krums was among the people in ferries diverted to rescue the plane’s passengers. From the ferry, he posted a now-famous photo from the camera on his iPhone to Twitter, the popular micro-blogging service that allows members 140 characters to answer the question “What are you doing?” The photo depicts the partially submerged plane with people on an inflatable raft as the plane sank. The accompanying tweet, as Twitter updates are called, said, “I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” Krums’s photo has since been viewed more than 460,000 times.

Krums’s experience is proof that, when news is happening, it breaks now. Well gone are the days of news reels and evening editions, but gone also are the days when once-revolutionary 24-hour news networks were king. The news now belongs to its participants and observers.

This new breed of citizen journalist, armed with cell phones and netbooks, is shooting tweets from the hip, and truly earning social media its revolutionary moniker. While it may at times be trite, the Social Media Revolution is happening, and it will indeed not be televised: it’s online.

It’s been a long time coming, really. From the first Myspace profiles in 2003 to my mom’s constantly updated Facebook status, social media have come a very long way.

While still dubious and feared by some, the integration of social media into everyday life can’t and wont be ignored. I knew it began when I heard NPR’s gentle and polite Diane Rehm kindly direct listener questions to Twitter; I recognized the event horizon when I received a friend request on Facebook from my grandmother.

The overwhelming gravity of how far social media have come, however, was realized with full force late last month, and shook all of the Internet to its core.

When Michael Jackson died June 25, the news hit the Internet first—and hard. CNN.com, in an article titled “Jackson dies, almost takes Internet with him,” asked rhetorically, “How many people does it take to break the Internet?” Its snarky response to its own question was, “one…if that one is Michael Jackson.”

It’s not surprising, though, to learn that it’s an almost true statement: Michael Jackson, for a while, broke the Internet.

According to Mashable.com, at 5:30 p.m., about half an hour after the confirmed announcement of Michael Jackson’s death by major media outlets, at least 30 percent of tweets were related to the event, reportedly crashing the popular Web site several times.

According to the CNN.com article, Twitter wasn’t the only Web site affected by Jackson’s death.

“As sites fell, users raced to other sites…TMZ, which broke the story, had several outages; users then switched to Perez Hilton’s blog, which also struggled to deal with the requests it received. CNN reported a fivefold rise in traffic and visitors in just over an hour, receiving 20 million page views in the hour the story broke,” the article said.

The article also reports that the Los Angeles Times, Wikipedia, AIM and Google News had trouble keeping up with traffic.

It wasn’t just people at computers creating this buzz, though. With the widespread adoption of smart phones and other Internet-enabled devices, anyone can participate pretty much anywhere they are.

“It could go down as the biggest mobile event in history,” AOL consumer adviser Regina Lewis said in the article. She explained that because so much of the event occurred during working hours, many people were using cell phones to keep tabs on the breaking news.

While this specific instance may be unprecedented, the influence of social media on people’s lives is growing around the world. After Iran’s controversial election in mid-June, supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi took to the streets in protest of what they believe to be a rigged election, and the world heard about it in real time through millions of tweets by hundreds of thousands of Twitter users.

Twitter was on fire as journalists and citizens in the streets of Iran used whatever means possible to document the turmoil. ABC News correspondent Jim Sciutto, who was in Tehran as the rioting began, posted to Twitter, “We are shooting protests and police violence on our cellphones” after (as reported by a New York Times article titled “CNN’s coverage of Iran protests criticized”) his camera and footage had been confiscated by police.

Furthermore, after these police crackdowns on Iranians began, even the Iranian government was using Twitter to track down dissidents. In response, many Twitter users from around the world changed their locations to Iran and set their timezone to GMT +03:30 hours so the government would have a more difficult time telling who was actually in Iran and who wasn’t. This fog created an atmosphere more conducive to free expression with less fear of retribution.

I’ve heard it said that Twitter is the Pet Rock of my generation: inane and a flash-in-the-pan time-waster that’s good for little to nothing. This may eventually prove true, given the frivolity that it’s so well known for and leads many to answer Twitter’s “What are you doing?” query with an overwhelming, “Who cares?” But given its record so far of preserving and reporting what’s happening now all around the world, I think it deserves more credit. While its legacy will be determined in time, for now, it’s a relevant news-breaker for the 21st century, and might actually be doing a little bit of good.

Send technology questions or ideas to Jordan Hall at contact@rockrivertimes.com. Include “ATTN: CTRL+D” in the subject line.

from the Aug 12-18, 2009 issue

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