Posted by Jerrod @ 8:36 pm on November 27th 2008

Technology, crowds, and “breaking news”

Perhaps the thing that struck me the most while I was reading up on the Mumbai attacks was a report that the Indian government had requested Twitter feeds to stop reporting on the movements by the police and military. Twitter is one of those things that I’ve known about for a long but simply haven’t had any urge to participate in. It always struck me as a huge distraction (I’ve got enough of those with just a handful of bookmarks) if not an outright narcissistic, “social Web 2.0”, fad, kind of like an overindulgent Facebook status line that gets broadcast around the internets.

But now, looking at the #mumbai twitter feed, I’m taken back to the 9/11 attacks and the forum thread that we had. That thread was a place for people to share the news and share the experience as it unfolded and it was very…convenient? useful? nice? comforting? I’ll say therapeutic for lack of a better word. Twitter isn’t quite the interactive medium that a forum thread is, but it clear wasn’t just a narcissistic social web masturbation. The quality of the news was immediate, relevant, unfiltered, and good enough that the authorities felt it might be undermining their attempts to control the situation.

Other social technology came into play. People have also put together a Google Document that lists casualties and status reports. And of course Flickr has some incredible photography. This is some fascinating use of technology by crowds.

As I’m writing this, someone submitted to that twitter feed that CNN is reporting on Twitter and the attacks. I haven’t read the entire twitter feed; I don’t know if the whole thing is even still available as I was only able to jump to the 100th page which is only 5 hours old. The CNN article mentions that it wasn’t just reporting of events but requests for blood donors at specific hospitals.

However, CNN also mentions the amount of rumor and wild speculation that filled the twitter feed. It’s important to keep in mind that this kind of unfiltered access to people’s input on a situation is likely to have tremendous nuggets of information that standard news reporting simply can’t collect as readily or effectively, but at the same time it’s bound to have plenty of garbage by ignorant or even intentionally malignant contributors. Just because it was twittered about doesn’t make it true.

And just because twitter was so interesting in this case doesn’t mean I’m going to start tweeting or even reading it. Probably.

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