instantaneous information

How did you first hear of yesterday’s tragedy in London? Where did you search for more information?

I asked random friends these questions yesterday, techies and non-techies. Given timezone differences, many of my friends woke up to the radio telling them about it. Others heard because they peruse mainstream news sites with their coffee. Over and over again, i heard people express frustration when they tried to search in Google/Yahoo for more information. There was none; it was too new. Even the BBC barely updated.

I remember this feeling from 9/11. Knowing that somewhere on blogs, there was information. Knowing that people took photos. Knowing that names of survivors and victims had to be listed somewhere. And having no place to look. When the tsunami hit, a blogspot blog became a central focus for people trying to get information. But that blog still took a couple of days. Then again, it was a different kind of horror.

What amazed me was how my technical, blogging and tech-comfortable friends converged on three sites: Technorati, Flickr and Wikipedia. (The non-technical stuck to the mainstream news and called folks.) The front page of Wikipedia linked to the article that people collectively used to provide information. On Flickr, many photos were collected into community pools, TV images were photographed, and there were press folks asking permission to use different photos. On Technorati, the front page clearly showed that everyone was searching for information on London. Technorati saw traffic spike to 45% over regular levels.

Historically (::cough::), we turned to the TV for up-to-the-minute news of major events. Yet, today, we are finding that this is not enough. We don’t simply want the packaged reports of terror on auto-repeat. We want to know the functional details and have the ability to track down loved ones, narrow in on particular aspects of the situation, and hear from people on the ground. We want real voices, not TV-ified ones. The web allows people to be present across geographical location, to communicate directly rather than through the media, to actually access each others’ experiences instanteously. Now, if only the search process was simpler…

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22 thoughts on “instantaneous information

  1. Jacob Haller

    I saw a cryptic comment in someone’s livejournal; I wasn’t sure what it meant but it was enough to make me look at CNN’s web page. After that I listened to NPR most of the day and occasionally checked out Wikipedia and maybe a couple of other online sources.

  2. Ben

    I disagree with the blogoshpere was better in this case (unlike 2001). I came home at 9pm in Australia and the news was the BEST coverage. The internet had ground to a halt and when a site was accessible it was no better at all than the live coverage and satellite feed of bbc world. They had the experts in place and had obviously planned for just this situation.

    Shots of the TV and copy of the feed coverage was not as compelling as sitting watching teh various professional feeds.

    This is probably a different view to the echo chamber view of the blogoshpere…..

  3. dennis

    I was at work and at some point I started browsing my favourite blog. I saw a post about london bombs and initially I thought it was somebody’s scenario about the security risks in the Olympics.
    I kept scrolling down to find the phrase ‘…and this is what could happen in the Olympics if London doesnt take security seriously’ or words to that effect, then I just clicked on CNN

  4. anonymous coward

    BBC was not updated because london was expecting this attack. The police and civil defense were trained. When the attack first beginned, people were told explosions were due to a power surge. By controlling information flow, the city officals avoided people from panic and horhor. The crisis management was perfect, and cold-blooded.

  5. goodwitch

    I flipped on the TV to brighten my morning and was dropped immediately into a Special Report. Being hypersensitive to violence, I was glad for just the high level details.

    What I wanted next was to know if my friends were alright. Blogs, IM and email quickly gave me what I wanted to know first.

    In comparison, during 9/11, I first heard on the radio and got most of my information from IM. The web was too overloaded for me to get to CNN…a friend was conveying info to me from and broadcast TV.

  6. Eric

    I read the news on my mobile phone, then signed onto livejournal to see if my friends who live in London had updated.

    They were okay.

  7. Aneel

    I first heard on NPR, which is what (loudly) wakes me up on weekdays. And then I started scanning thru my feedreader and found everything else I could possibly want to know from a couple of bloggers that had been actively writing about it since the first bombing. I didn’t even get around to the news sites until a couple of hours into looking for info and hunting down friends.

  8. zephoria

    Ben – this isn’t about being an echo chamber. Interestingly, with not updating online and the lack of TV where i was, i was limited to what i could find online and in radio. Radio was doing the auto-repeat OMG routine. Formal media websites were putting out very little information. Getting basic facts of _exactly where_ was difficult because the only thing i could find was King’s Cross. I’m sure that BBC World live was fantastic. Unfortunately, that was not accessible (and the live stream was halted and there’s no podcast for at least the audio).

  9. Ken

    I tend to agree that the mainstream news was a bit lacking. The best seemed to run out of things to say relatively soon, and the worst focused on emotionally framing the event, as if viewers wouldn’t know how to respond if left on their own.

    The exception was ABC News Australia*, which had integrated coverage (theirs and others) with GoogleEarth. Quite amazing, actually. I’d like to see more media (including Wiki) move in this direction, at least for those events that lend themselves to geographical representation.

    Truly, quite amazing.


  10. Ben

    Danah – You’re right, it isn’t about echo chambers. I felt that the general sentiment is that blogs (to a degree) and wikipedia to more were much better than broadcast TV. I guess I was/am sort of expecting a blogs are great reaction from some.

    I find it very interesting to see if there is a difference between the opinion in the US vs elsewhere in the world, where as you say, coverage was different (better?). Here the commerical channels (we have 5 free to air stations in australia) flipped to feeds from os with the nation broadcaster flipping to bbc coverage.

    When watching the footage on Thursday night, I immediately thought about how broadcast coverage was sooo much more accessible than web/podcast/stream coverage; but it is again interesting to hear you say that the broadcast coverage was not available to you (vs choosing not to use it) and having to move to other channels of distribution for you to find you info.

  11. john

    I heard about it from my coworker Cal, who was sitting right next to me.

    We had just finished moving’s datacenter from Vancouver to one of Yahoo’s datacenters, and it was a good thing, because that next day we had a record traffic day, mostly because of the bombings.

  12. Jon Garfunkel

    Shelley Powers took exception to such disaster-induced blog triumphalism.

    Let’s be real. The Internet is always going to be broader than the “mainstream media” (print/broadcast). But only a fraction of the population has the time to mine the Internet/blogs/flickr. You may wish for gatekeepers to go away, but the majority of the population chooses otherwise.

    For the record, I heard it on the radio at 8AM EDT. My aunt in London emailed my father to let him know that she and family were alright.

  13. Jake

    I agree with anonymous coward. The lack of information was good not bad. When, I arrived at tube with a mass of people we were told that it was a power failure. We then calmly walked to work. On the information front, more annoying for me was that the mobile phone network was brought down. So, it was difficult to contact my family. During the 1980s the IRA campaign against Londoners was not really reported, bomb scares etc were not reported, the theory being that to report the disruption to London would be exactly what the criminals wanted. In my view there should be less media coverage of these attacks not more. Deny the criminals the oxygen of publicity, and maybe life will get back to normal more quickly. It is not the first time London has been attacked and it will not be the last time. Throughout it’s history London has been attacked and burnt, but it always comes back bigger and more vibrant, and that is why I like living here.

  14. zephoria

    Jon – let’s back up and remember what i said. This is not a whee-whee-whee blogs are great post. This is the fact that (even non-blogger) friends of mine who wanted rapid-fire information went to three sources. This is the fact that while international TV may have been covering this well and giving people what they needed, not everyone had access to international news and the news websites were sorely lacking.

    Tragedies are terrible. But each time we have one, societies learn new things about how to manage information in a state of crisis. Blogs took a front and center role in the tsunami tragedy and they became an assumption here for many people who saw the successes there. There is something very critical about how people reach out and try new mediums in order to broaden the potential reach and information access. This iteration also occurs in formal news media. New ways of covering crises, collaborating to get information out, etc.

  15. ian Wojtowicz

    As with 9/11, my news source was my Mom. She was smart enough to call and wake me up and tell me to listen to the radio. But I’m not so sure I want to deconstruct my mother, create a technology out of her and mass produce it to anyone who will pay x dollars.

    As for better systems of news, I think this is the topic for a very long discussion touching on subject from improved network description vocabulary, to ecology, gardening, pets, and the cafe scene from “32 Short Films about Glen Gould”.

  16. Nick Johnson

    I think Wikinews was a more appropriate site for this event than Wikipedia. Besides the obvious appeal for a user driven content site like wikipedia, a beautiful functional flow of information like this (despite the unfortunate happenings behind it) was meant to be displayed on Wikinews.

  17. Thomas David Baker

    Mobile network – dead. BBC website – too slow. Other websites – no news or no up to date news. Search engines – not updated yet.

    As with 9/11, TV was my main source of information.

    And the day before was down all morning so I had to find out about the Olympics from the TV too.

    It’s not gone yet.

  18. Tom

    I currently live in London, and got into work that day ~8.30am. We had the radio on and so heard some information that way – blanket news coverage spread as the day went on (BBC had rolling news on their News 24 channel as usual, and that feed was put onto the BBC terrestrial feed when more was found out about the event for example.)

    In a way, it depends on which sources you use – is great online site for a broadsheet UK newspaper – they very quickly had their live G8 blog running news on the events as they unfolded. Pictures form amateurs, mobiles, witness statements and commentary was quickly added.

    If you want news, go straight to a news site.
    Searching for recent information is much better done with RSS feeds of relevant news channels
    National, and local. A search engine is the wrong tool for the job – as you showed by the sites you relied on: Technorati, Flickr and Wikipedia.

    TV can give up to the minute reports, once they are they have reporters at the sites etc. In rapidly unfolding news events, there is a certain inevitable delay to get facts verified, witnesses interviewed, statements out – to get accurate, reliable functional details.

    As for information in this case for loved ones – who was hurt, who wasn’t – again there is an inevitable delay for public access to this due to the procedures around such major incidents.
    That’s in part why the mobile telephone networks saw such a surge. People checking in to say they are ok, and to check others are.

  19. Curtis J. Bathurst

    I found out through an email circulating among my British friends. It was really strange at first glance. Everyone was forwarding it around, adding one line each, and they read:

    I’m fine.

    I’m okay.

    I’m here too.

    I’m fine.

    Then I realized something really bad must have happened and I turned on NPR.

  20. Andrew

    I was at work and at some point I started browsing my favourite blog. I saw a post about london bombs and initially I thought it was somebody’s scenario about the security risks in the Olympics.
    I kept scrolling down to find the phrase ‘…and this is what could happen in the Olympics if London doesnt take security seriously’ or words to that effect, then I just clicked on CNN

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