I initially wrote, and published, this post yesterday evening as the events were unfolding. This morning, news was still coming out of Boston and appearing on social media, so I’ve just made one or two running edits, in italics, to keep it current.
I don’t intend to make light of the coordinated series of explosions in Boston, but I wanted to talk about one aspect of social media, the ‘etiquette of online response’ rather than the events themselves, which the world has just witnessed.
I joined FriendsReunited in 2002. I tried joining Facebook in 2004, when it was still restricted to universities in the States. I joined MySpace in 2005 and was then a relatively early adopter of Twitter in 2009. There have been other formats that have been so fleeting I don’t even remember them. So, I’m confident in saying that I know my way round the various social mediums and in 2011 Emer Coleman (previously of Government Digital Service) referred to me as a “digital native”.
The advent of social media, and the internet more generally, has, without question, changed the way in which I consume information. I’m not alone in this, and social media offers much more than a mechanism for posting pictures of what you’ve had for dinner (although I have nothing against it’s use for that purpose).
But I do find social media interesting during a ‘Breaking News’ story. (Update: the first time I remember encountering this ‘etiquette’ issue was 2010’s Roaul Moat story.)
On twitter we have the hashtag and the humble retweet, which I think are magnificent functions. The Hastag (e.g.#SMEM) allows ‘searches’ of linked tweets, making finding related information easier. The retweet then allows for official and verified messages to be shared to a much wider audience. Whilst twitter has it’s downsides (speculation and subjectivity), I think it’s far more effective. However, on the other hand, my Facebook news feed was jam packed with either people attempting to break the news themselves, or expressing their deep emotional outpourings to affected families. I find both of these considerably less helpful than a quick RT.
It’s simply not instinctive to me to head to Facebook in the ‘initial phase’. I just don’t expect people that I went to primary school with to have the latest information (maybe I didn’t go to school with the right people?!). Obviously, it goes without saying, that this is not about Facebook as a platform, but about how people use it.
Conversely, my twitter feed was filled with some fantastic RTs of relevant news agencies, official feeds and bystander pictures and videos. I didn’t follow @Boston_Police before today, and I doubt I’ll ever really need their day to day updates, but they’re a demonstration of how twitter can be used to spread news and provide reassurance. Yes, I’ve seen one or two images which are certainly shocking, and I think a degree of sensitivity is needed for these graphic images (Update: It can be distressing to see people who have been badly injured, and perhaps the media, and all of us need a bit more self-regulation when sharing images). However, whilst they might show upsetting scenes (including this video), I personally find them preferable to the banality of sympathy that I witnessed last night on Facebook.
Surely it’s a given that we are appalled by this type of incident, why do you need to let your friends know you’re shocked ? In an emergency people who have been affected (either directly or distally) are desperately searching for useful information…yes, be sad and donate to relief funds, but don’t occupy the news feeds of people who are looking for information. This particularly important the closer the events are to home.
That said, there isn’t an instruction book, and only a degree of etiquette has evolved as the platforms have developed. What’s your view? Do you see a difference in the way people use different mediums? What works and what doesn’t? How can we make the best use of these useful communication tools?
Image Credit: Awareforum.org