Social media and disaster reporting has now almost completed the cycle of wonder, hype, backlash, and normalcy. In 2008, Twitter and other crowdsourced aggregation tools were hailed as the most accurate source of information on the Mumbai attacks. Because Twitter’s network of users was small at the time, the signal-to-noise ratio was perfect for amplifying correct information and sorting out the inevitable mass of rumors that emerge from all breaking news events. The ensuing hype cycle hit a high point with the a wave of “Twitter revolutions,” the Summer 2009 Iran election crisis being the most prominent.
The backlash has effectively begun. Even at the height of crowdsourcing hype, Twitter was criticized for spreading false information about the H1N1 Flu. But even those criticisms pale in comparison to the sheer bitterness of TechCrunch writer Paul Carr’s column on the Ft. Hood shootings:
“For all of our talk about “the world watching”, what good did social media actually do for the people of Iran? Did the footage out of the country actually change the outcome of the elections? No. Despite a slew of YouTube videos and a couple of thousand foreign Twitter users turning their avatar green and pretending to be in Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still in power. It’s astonishing, really. Despite how successful ten million actual voters marching through Washington, London and other major cities in 2003 were in stopping the invasion of Iraq, a bit of entirely virtual cyber-posturing by foreigners didn’t lead to real change in Iran. And so it was at Fort Hood. For all the sound and fury, citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation at a time when thousands people with family at the base would have been freaking out already, and breach the privacy of those who had been killed or wounded. We learned not a single new fact, nor was a single life saved.”
Carr’s criticism is unduly harsh, but it serves a useful function–we can move past the technological “hype” stage to that of normalcy, where a technology is actually operationalized into everyday practice by pragmatic professionals. To use a military analogy, it is the difference between J.F.C Fuller’s fantasies of all-tank armies and Panzer Group Kleist’s practical usage of armor in the 1940 French campaign. Social media, in isolation, can never be as successful a source of information (or for that matter, social change) as its boosters claimed. But when integrated into a larger framework it can serve a valuable purpose. As I noted in my article “Information Counterrevolution,” what crowdsourced reporting needs is a better (crowdsourced) means of controlling white noise and organizing information. Wikipedia, to some extent, has already done this through its gradual increase in the power of an core elite. News organizations are also likely to develop crowdsourced networks of their own that feed into the higher level.