The Worldwide Echo Chamber
You've no doubt heard the news: the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa has attracted a larger Web audience than the election of Barack Obama. During that historic election, the peak of visitors per minute worldwide reached 8.5 million; on June 11, 2010, it reached 12 million. Just yesterday at around noon eastern time, the Web had nearly 9.4 million visitors per minute, also beating the Obama record.
There's so much FIFA chatter going on, Twitter's fail whale is working overtime. The AP reported that tweet volume spikes radically after goals in big games. For instance, though Twitter normally sees about 750 tweets per second on an average day, there were 2,940 tweets per second, then a record, after Japan scored against Cameroon last Monday.
(It should be noted, however, that basketball still gets more love than soccer in the U.S. Google saw a big search spike when the L..A. Lakers won the NBA championship on Thursday, which also generated nearly 3,085 tweets per second on Twitter.)
The Web as echo chamber is in full force, too. Consider the very silly story of three Portuguese words innocently spoken by a single man in Brazil that became a worldwide search for meaning, a new crusade to save an endangered species, and the launch of a new Lady Gaga hit song.
Those three words? Cala Boca Galvão. They were the dominant search term on Google and Twitter for most of last week.
Don't speak Portuguese? Here's what those words mean: "Shut up, Galvão." And who, you may be wondering, is Galvão? He's a sportscaster in Brazil thought by many to be a walking, talking anachronism and difficult to listen to. So someone sent a tweet across Twitter -- and it got retweeted and retweeted.
When, inevitably, it reached the U.S., everyone wanted to know what it meant. Some enterprising jokers in Brazil decided to play a hoax, built a website, made a video and let the world know that every time someone tweeted "Cala Boca Galvão," 10 cents would be donated to a foundation to save the endangered national bird of Brazil, the Galvão. Nearly a million people have seen the video. No such bird exists.
It took the New York Times and NPR, among many other news organizations worldwide, to debunk it before a duped world realized that no matter what Brazil may do at the World Cup, it beat the world at the game of gotcha.
Then came the Lady Gaga song dedicated to the same cause, which has gotten nearly 200,000 views on YouTube. (This is a hoax, too, of course...)
Increasingly, the world shares synchronous events in an ever-deepening, connected way. Much in the way smaller groups of unrelated folks gather in movie theaters or sports stadiums to share the same moment together, Twitter, Facebook and Google increasingly bring the whole world together in virtual spaces around singular events.
Sharing these moments is essentially human and make sense. But as the endangered bird episode illustrates (harmlessly, but still all too easily), the Web's echo chamber can take that which is untrue and make it true in an instant -- globally. It can be all in good fun, but at some point it will be the equivalent of standing up in a movie theater and screaming "fire" - causing a stampede of frightened people to trample one another to get to the exits.
The Web can be enormously self-correcting. And we still have the much maligned and dismissed mainstream media to keep the fact straights (and to reveal shenanigans for what they are). But will these mechanisms be fast enough when it's most important?