I had just crossed the street, a block from Ground Zero. My phone vibrated and I pulled it out to skim a scrolling Facebook update posted by my friend, Brooks Smith. "Wow... Boston... explosions... " Since he is a structural engineer who travels often and writes about his job regularly, I returned my phone to my pocket without a second thought.
Only later, as I read my Facebook feed did I learn about the bombings at the Boston marathon. It was not the first time, and it will unlikely be the last time I would be presented with breaking news via social media.
This is our current world, where push notifications on mobile devices mean information is served immediately, and news can be delivered by friends rather than media conglomerates.
Smith does not use social media as his news source, preferring to read about current events via Google News or Al Jazeera. However, knowing that many of his friends only/primarily get their sense of the world through Facebook and Twitter, he posts major, breaking stories up on his Facebook wall. He doesn't use Twitter.
He explains, "It's only really major breaking stories that I'll post, and even for those, most of my comments to the post will be more along the lines of 'Y'all should watch the BBC live feed for this, and leave the local feed to locals, who actually need it.'" He does it as a public service announcement.
On the morning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in downtown Manhattan, I heard the first plane fly over SoHo. Strange, but not particularly alarming at the time. My boyfriend left for work and I continued to listen to his Belle and Sebastian album If You're Feeling Sinister. Shortly afterward, my phone rang. My boyfriend told me that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers.
Neither Facebook nor Twitter existed in 2001. The internet had not become my main source of news yet. I turned on the television to see huge billows of smoke flooding out of a Twin Tower.
A slightly different version of this image played on every channel. A terrible accident, we thought. Panic didn't become widespread until the second plane hit.
Every channel on the television basically offered the same information. Which was not very much at all. During the initial chaos, the only firsthand account I recall is of a man who phoned into a news station to report an airplane wheel that had fallen from the sky and onto the West Side highway.
I ran out into the sunshine in a misguided attempt to find my parents. Both worked below 14th Street. I didn't know which way to run. Phone lines were jammed.
I was at a complete loss. Alone. Unconnected.
Now, in 2013, we have Facebook, Twitter, texting and dozens of alternatives for communicating. In fact, it's easy to be over-connected when not in times of crisis.
Tuck School of Business student Scott Keenan monitored his Facebook account to make sure his friends were safe during the Boston tragedies last week. He texted anyone who had not checked in online and accounted for all of his friends within a couple of hours. He had been particularly worried about Stephen McAlpin and his wife.
Early Friday morning, Keenan found a status update from McAlpin stating that he and his wife were safe but that they couldn't leave their Watertown home since it had been made a crime scene. A few minutes later, McAlpin posted photos of bullet holes in his walls and TV. A few hours later, Scott watched Brian Williams interview McAlpin interview on MSNBC.
Since I did not have access to a television, I was relegated to using an iPad with limited cellular service for my information feed. I scanned thousands of lines of text on HootSuite and Facebook. Social media made me feel less disengaged than I had been over a dozen years ago. I interacted with people in the Boston region and shared their images. As did others.
Andrew Kitzenberg's photo, "Bullet hole through our wall and the chair #mitshooting #mit #boston," has been retweeted almost 8,000 times.
Shawna England's photo of police snipers via "View from my house...crazy #watertown," has been retweeted over 13,000 times.
Social media allows us to crowdsource our news. The danger is not being able to recognize truth from fiction or mere speculation. Typically, I turn to trusted networks and friends for facts. However, even CNN was guilty of blundering this time. Not that it hurt their ratings.
Recent Dartmouth College graduate Jason Goodman, '12, preferred to follow the happenings via Reddit Live Feed, streaming news and Twitter, specifically the Boston Globe's Twitter feed. He was mostly concerned on taking in details rather than spreading them, and found no difficulty distinguishing between good and bad information.
I thought the Reddit newsfeed was phenomenal. It tended to report what was happening before the news did, a wonderful example of crowdsourcing. Sometimes there was wrong information, but it was usually caveated appropriately, and the context demanded that viewers take everything with a grain of salt.
I look for observations from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the understanding that the full detail on what happened will find me at a later point. While it is hard to know what information I can trust from these observations, I assume that the facts will find me, or that eventually I'll be able to find them.
Another Dartmouth College alumnus, Kenny Waclawski, '12, also followed breaking news on Reddit, but chose to repeat "a lot of information that was unverified, but that was in part to hear from anyone else if they knew it was true. A lot of us were very frantic because our houses were under lockdown, and naturally we wanted to know things."
Waclawski's parents remained calm in Waltham. "It only seemed to be people my age doing this. We all knew that a ton of the information was false. But there was a group of us wildly speculating on everything."
The recent tragedy in Boston shows us again the power of social media. The immediate and unmitigated flow of journalism is simultaneously remarkable and potentially dangerous. Fabricated photos and videos can go viral in the blink of an eye. In a crisis, how do we keep individuals from publicly sharing sensitive information which can endanger lives within minutes? Verification of facts is of utmost importance, but is it immediately possible given the scope and instantaneous nature of the internet?
Lisa Chau has been involved with Web 2.0 since graduate school at Dartmouth College, where she completed an independent study on blogging. She was subsequently highlighted as a woman blogger in Wellesley Magazine, published by her alma mater. She has been published in US News and Forbes on the subject of social media, and she has taught at MIT. She has guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e-business Strategy at Baruch College and NYU's New School.