01 December 2008

Social Media at work in Mumbai and How the Corporate Media Still Doesn't Get It

The corporate media is jumping on the Twitter bandwagon, even as it lobs not-so-subtle criticisms at it. They continue to try to integrate social media tools without truly embracing their purported applications. In short, they forget the "social" in social media.

I noticed that the Boston Globe was sharing information about statewide Thanksgiving Day high school football games via twitter, and the Lexington Herald-Leader was live-tweeting Black Friday at a variety of retail chain stores in town. I'm sure other publications were as well, and this is kinda cute, but it's still mainly the one-way communication the mainstream media prefers to employ. They see twitter basically as an RSS feed, hoping to drive traffic to other sites. They remain largely uninterested in a conversation unless it's on their terms.

I was actually impressed with CNN's online coverage of the attacks in Mumbai, but basically because they just cut live to their Indian English-language "sister station," IBN. I still went first to BBC and Global Voices Online, which quickly set up a special coverage page.

Then I noticed a curious piece on CNN's website called "Tweeting the Terror." The Mumbai violence certainly wasn't the first time an emergency was broadcast by several people at once on Twitter, but it is the first time I've seen the suggestion that people shouldn't tweet and the oft-used "they're not journalists" screed from a dying media that keeps getting scooped:

However, as is the case with such widespread dissemination of information, a vast number of the posts on Twitter amounted to unsubstantiated rumors and wild inaccuracies.

For example, a rumor that the Indian government was asking tweeters to stop live updates to avoid compromising its security efforts was published and republished on the site.

This was seemingly given credence by at least one major news Web site, which posted the tweet on its live update.

It read simply: "Indian government asks for live Twitter updates from Mumbai to cease immediately. ALL LIVE UPDATES - PLEASE STOP TWEETING."

Then it was suggested via Twitter that terrorists were using the medium to gain information about what Indian security forces were doing, which led to numerous abusive postings urging the terrorists to "die, die, die, if you're reading this."

As blogger Tim Mallon put it, "I started to see and (sic) ugly side to Twitter, far from being a crowd-sourced version of the news it was actually an incoherent, rumour-fueled mob operating in a mad echo chamber of tweets, re-tweets and re-re-tweets.

"During the hour or so I followed on Twitter there were wildly differing estimates of the numbers killed and injured - ranging up to 1,000."

What is clear that although Twitter remains a useful tool for mobilizing efforts and gaining eyewitness accounts during a disaster, the sourcing of most of the news cannot be trusted.

Actually, in my opinon it's not clear that Twitter is any less reliable than many if not most mainstream media sources. I counted several bits of information from mainstream channels during the crisis in Mumbai that turned out to be inaccurate. I also know that I learned - quite correctly - about a number of breaking stories via Twitter.

This tool has taken away one of corporate media's most important assets - the ability to report "breaking news" first - and they're having serious difficulties grappling with this. It's just the latest innovation that shows how corporate media will have to redesign their business model sooner rather than later.

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