With Twitter, a Desperate Need for Context

All TV news is now glocalIncreasingly, every time there is an unfortunate tragedy — be it a raging fire or a terrorist attack — we geta torrent of stories heralding the legitimacy of Twitter as a news source. Their core arguments are always the same — that social media tools allow for information to be dispatched far faster than the lumbering old media. 

Indeed, Twitter’s simplicity gives virtually anyone the power to send dispatches from the front line. Traditionally, eyewitness reports would first go through an editorial grinder; now they hit the web as soon as the people that type them up hit the proverbial send key. The question, however, then becomes: How does one make sense of the torrent of information that comes with this immediate media? I first wrote about the “immediate media” phenomenon last year:

This immediate media is information simply adapting to the new methods of distribution. At the turn of the last century, [the] telegraph was used to spread the news. Telephone technologies gave newspapers a new sense of urgency and made distant events a weekly, and for some, a daily affair. Radio broadcasts made news more real time, making it part of our daily life. TV brought news into the living room, [and] made it more personal. Cable and the birth of CNN made news a 24/7 phenomenon.

The Internet in its early version upped the tempo, and with the rise of high-speed, always-on connections, information is now an unending stream. If you follow that thread, then [you] can easily see that with each transformation, technology compressed the news cycle a little, and made distribution a bit more efficient. The more we connect, the more we want to know but in less time.

That idea of the future has arrived much faster than we thought, but as we struggle to make sense of all the readily available information, it’s important also to understand how the role of media outlets has changed. Such a need became especially clear to me over the past few days as I watched the ugliness unfold in Mumbai.

 Since Wednesday afternoon I have been glued to my computer screen — actually three of them — watching the CNN-IBN News and NDTV News feeds, MSNBC and Fox News, Wikipedia, and most importantly, Twitter, for updates on the situation in India. (Check out FLickr for getting visuals that show life after the attacks and how the armed forces are taking action on sea.) 

Despite the tremendous volume of information — and its immediacy — coming from Mumbai via Twitter, getting context about the situation has been a struggle. While a few people have been tweeting firsthand accounts, much of the information has been re-tweets or just rambling, reaction-based tweets. Maybe I was overcome with emotion, but the sheer volume of tweets and lack of clarity only fed my frustration with Twitter. (I’m sure it’s the same kind of frustration people feel with blogs at times as well.)

Over the last 12 months, video on the Internet has essentially turned global news into a local broadcast. Yet even with all the news coming at me from the local Indian channels by way of streaming on the web, no one was offering context, analysis or a comprehensive overview of what was unfolding around them. CNN, MSNBC and others didn’t exactly have a grasp of the situation either, and I was left guessing what was actually happening. It wasn’t until The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times offered up their reports that the whole time line and sequence of events started to make sense. It was only then that the sheer ugliness and audacity, the horror and the madness, hit home. 

And that’s when I realized that the future of media is being split into two streams: one that consists of raw news that comes like a torrent from sources such as Twitter, mobile messages and photos, the other, from old media. The eyewitness dispatches (and photos) via social media are an adjunct to the more established media — which needs to focus on providing analysis, context, and crucially, intelligence — in real time. And yet it is old media — and their next-generation counterparts, the blogs and other Internet outlets — that will have to adapt to this. Of course, the biggest adaption will need to come from the public, those of us who aren’t there ourselves.