This week was a very tough week for many Americans and particularly for Bostonians. What should have been an annual festive sporting event turned into a nightmare. This post is not about politics nor the attackers but how we became aware of the events and followed them. On Monday afternoon I saw an item in my Twitter feed about an explosion quickly followed by multiple tweets from people/organizations I follow. Simultaneously some of my coworkers—we work in an open environment so everyone pretty much knows what anyone else is doing—found out about the bombing at the same time. All via social media.
We have two TV’s within easy walking distance of our desks in the conference rooms and no one left their desk to watch CNN. Everyone tracked their Twitter and Facebook feeds, selecting a link to follow.
In January 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch. The only live TV coverage of the launch was on CNN and this is considered the watershed event in the establishment of CNN as a major news outlet. Five years later they outdid themselves by, figuratively speaking, carrying the Gulf War live.
So, back to Monday’s bombing. Why as events unfolded did we all stay glued to our computers and social media instead of the TV?
Speaking for myself, I found it better suited my needs to jump from social media to linked sites than to sit idly waiting for one news source to report the facts—especially since so many were simply wrong. I also felt as if I was personally investigating and researching the story rather, getting new information faster than waiting for more information to be fed to me by one source or three for that matter. I also found Boston news outlets to be the best sources for breaking information because they were already on the scene, much like CNN was in January 1986. They were able to capitalize on this tragedy and leverage it.
That being said, CNN (and other TV news outlets) did see dramatic increases in viewership over the last few days but I think it was more for the entertainment value of the manhunt that ensued. On Thursday night and all day Friday people were riveted by the unscripted drama, real reality TV, all day and into the night. This doesn’t surprise me at all. For anyone who hasn’t figured it out already TV news is entertainment more than it is news. It’s been programmed on TV to make you want to tune in again and again. Stories are teased and drawn out over time so you feel obligated to stay tuned to see what happens next. (A better perspective on this is Michael Crichton’s masterpiece “State of Fear”).
On another note we also see why social media needs to be managed by a real person in real time with real sensibilities and not automated or entrusted to a $15 per hour kid with no common sense. Some social media postings seemed trivial as we were all still in shock over the bombing. Some posts were downright offensive:
Have we just witnessed a watershed event in news consumption? Has social media usurped mainstream news outlets for news dissemination? Will the established news media figure out how to capitalize on this phenomenon to stay relevant? Now that social media has “grown-up” will publishers treat it (and us) with more dignity than Epicurious did?
Only time will tell.