A totally different kind of online learning

I live in Melrose, which is a small city about seven miles north of Boston. I’m fine, my whole family’s fine, and so far I don’t think anyone I know was touched by any of this week’s tragedies – except for the fact that we live in greater Boston and were so scared for, now proud of, our city.

But what I want to write about today is my experience of the way some of the tools we’ve talked about in this class – Twitter especially, but also blogs – have been and are being used to disseminate information during events like the Boston marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt.

My husband and I don’t have cable TV – we have a Roku box for our streaming services, but we can’t watch live television, so we were pretty much glued to the radio this last week. On Monday, when everything started, and then on Friday, when neither of us could go to work, we sat in our living room with the radio on, a live newsfeed on mute on the computer, refreshing Twitter on both of our phones every 30 seconds and reading any new-seeming piece of news out loud along with where it came from. This last piece was especially important: was it a news source, was it someone on-scene being retweeted, or was it just someone totally unrelated to the event declaring something. Twitter was often minutes, if not hours, in front of other news sources in terms of circulating new pieces of information, but it was also much, MUCH more likely to get all excited about some new piece of information that was just speculation or, in some cases, completely made up, sometimes by a news source. While it felt to us like a lifeline, a window into what was ACTUALLY happening, we quickly had to come up with our own system for trying to assess the credibility of sources and the information they were reporting. That said, we also saw well wishes from all over the world – New York, Syria – that were really meaningful, as well as remembrances of people who had been hurt or lost their lives that helped us remember the big picture of what the city was going through.

When the evening rounds of gunfire started in Watertown, we went over to my aunt and uncle’s house to watch their TV – we could tell it was coming to a conclusion, and we wanted to see it on TV and experience it with family. The visual seemed really important, as did being with people we cared about. So we sat in front of the TV talking about all we’d seen and read that day  and making a story for each other- how the FBI had interviewed the older brother in 2011, how his boxing coach said the younger brother looked up to his older brother so much. But my husband and I grew impatient with the recycled images on TV and with the loopy commentary from tired newscasters (at one point, a newscaster said it wouldn’t be long until the “knucklehead” at large would be in custody), and turned to Twitter – my family eagerly listened as we reported what was happening on-scene far before the newscasters got wind of it. By that point, we were both following the feeds we knew to be credible and could be pretty confident in their accuracy. Nothing could beat watching Watertown celebrate on-camera, though, or the fireworks we could hear after we turned the TV off.

Now that the climax has passed and everyone has the opportunity to piece together their own version of events, blog entries by people who knew the bombers, or at least about them –  classmates, a girl who went to their mom’s living room spa for years, an anonymous FBI aide frustrated that Russia had warned them in 2011 and no one had kept track – are pouring out of the woodwork. For me, they paint a picture of a scared 19-year-old heavily influenced by his older brother, but there’s a lot out there I haven’t read that probably says something different – people could get any number of things from these accounts, more of which are showing up in my newsfeed by the hour.

Overall, I think the use of social media to receive and disseminate up-to-the-second news information will ultimately replace TV and radio during events like this in the future, but this will only happen successfully as news consumers learn to cull the credible from the speculative and exclamatory. I also think some Republican senators should think more carefully when they tweet during a crisis, but that’s neither here nor there. In terms of how communities process tragedy, that’s necessarily a little murkier, but for me the blog posts about how Dzhokar was polite to his friends’ families, spent a whole night helping a girl retrace her steps to find the new cellphone she’d lost and moved his mom’s customer’s car so she wouldn’t get a parking ticket have an important humanizing effect.


3 thoughts on “A totally different kind of online learning

  1. I was thinking about you this week, Deirdre. What a strange week! I had similar observations about using Twitter and the Internet to get my news. I also found the activity on Reddit really interesting. They were really taking the whole crowdsourcing idea to extremes this week as they tried to identify the bombing suspect. http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technology/2013/04/reddit-police-scanner-innocent-boston-suspects/64384/
    I found it a really interesting intersection between the benefits of crowdsourcing and issues of privacy and ethics.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Cory!

    I had heard about the feed on Reddit and other crowdsourced sleuthing activities, which was really interesting to watch as news outlets started picking up on what they were doing and reporting what they were speculating on. It’s so interesting to watch a more global community become invested.

    I also heard the chatter about how dangerous this could be – I’m grateful the high school student they identified was cleared quickly, but there was also a Muslim woman attacked on Thursday night. Which isn’t to say that wouldn’t have happened without that kind of frantic activity, but I do think it feeds it in some way (not that Twitter doesn’t – it’s all of a piece, certainly).

    All that said, I chose Twitter because I felt like I could control it a little better and let’s just say I’ve seen some things on Reddit I can never unsee. I do know other people who turned to Reddit over more traditional news sources though – thanks for your perspective!

  3. We did the same – except we get the local stations via a digital antenna. I relied on Twitter, AP news app with push notifications and Facebook. We were up north house hunting on Monday and pretty cut off from the world for part of the day. It was awful when I finally got to see video etc. I agree, news will travel though many different channels from now on. Maybe the major outlets will lose even more credibility (like CNN snafu this week)

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