Mumbai and the techno-optimists

If you're a human being, you couldn't help but be horrified by the Mumbai terror attacks. But if you were a journalists, Web 2.0er or crusty media critic, you were probably also struck by the role social media played in the attack. Between blogs, Twitter, and Flickr, ordinary citizens close to action provided an avalanche of updates, photos, and commentary. It didn't take long for observers to rise up on their hind legs and declare that social media had somehow "come of age" or "come into its own" as a news-gathering force. Twitter was deemed to be particularly relevant, unleashing a storm of bite-sized info about the crisis. Leading the cheers were the Twitterers themselves, often pointing out how awesome they were during the attacks. The techno-optimists - or those who believe that technology will save us all - were having a field day.

As a blogger, I obviously find some value in social media. And the ability of blogs and Twitter to "group-source" breaking news is impressive. But at times like this, I always feel the need to inject a little reality into all the congratulatory high-fiving.

It's important to look at what Twitter and social media sites actually contributed to coverage of the Mumbai attacks. True, many tweets provided useful real-time updates on what and where things were happening. But for every one of these posts, there were many more that fell into one of the following categories:

  • Personal tweets - people trying to find out about loved ones or expressing some emotional sentiment;
  • Misleading tweets - posts that contained incorrect information;
  • Sourced tweets - people pulling info off of local television and radio; and
  • Noise tweets - endless re-tweeting and re-re-tweeting of earlier posts.

The end result was like high-decibel playground chatter. Given this amount of information clutter, I would be very surprised if anyone used Twitter to supplant coverage from traditional news outlets. While I found the Twitter feed interesting, I still waited for major newspapers to release their own reports before drawing any conclusions. And with so many tweets rehashing information from professional journalists, it seems specious to suggest that Twitter had somehow trumped the mainstream media.

It's also possible to temper the techno-optimists with a bit of history. Every new communications medium experiences a relatively brief "enthusiastic" period, characterized by a sort of anarchistic exuberance. As the fledgling technology flexes its muscles, early adopters are keen to point out the democratic or transformational qualities of the new arrival. But before long, the basic human need to satisfy material needs - typically through money - asserts itself and the market begins to impose a certain order. 

Print began as political pamphleteering by radical driven by the emerging technology of the printing press. These pamphlets gradually became organs of established political parties, before finally settling into the advertising-supported model of modern newspapers. Radio experienced a small explosion of independent broadcasting before shifting to a commercial model. TV was commercialized almost immediately.

The Internet is so far following this pattern. Although easily the most "open" and "democratic" form of media devised by the idle hands of man,  it is gradually becoming normalized by market forces. Networks are commercialized. ISPs jealously guard their customers. And even the early manifestations of the social web have begun to behave very much like the stuffy ol' MSM. The most popular blogs are basically online magazines, as dependent on advertising as the newspapers they were supposed to replace.

Twitter is not immune to these forces. If it is truly an emerging news medium, then it will likely go through a similar process of absorption into the dominant media system. And I don't mean this as a criticism. Any human endeavour is a process of compromise, and our market-oriented media offers as many advantages as it does problems. The vast preponderance of history suggests that if Twitter is valuable, it will be subsumed into the mainstream. And if it isn't useful, it will simply be discarded.

So, while Twitter may have proved something about itself in the fires of Mumbai, I doubt it signals a significant change in the way we gather and consume information. It is a useful tool, but one that really only makes sense within the context of commerical and professional media. While the techno-optimists suggest conventional journalism is being twittered into an early grave, reality and history tell another story.