The New Speed Of Information

This summer, we had fires in the town I live in. From the back deck of my house, I could see the smoke and, as darkness descended, the flames that were threatening the homes in the hills above Kelowna. I had friends and co-workers that lived in the neighborhoods that were being evacuated, so I wanted to know what was happening as soon as possible.

I was sitting on the back deck, watching the progress of the fire through binoculars and monitoring Twitter on my laptop. My wife was inside the house, listening on the radio and watching on TV. Because I had an eyewitness perspective, I was able to judge the timeliness of our news channels and gained a new appreciation for the speed of social networks.

News That's Not So New

If you had tuned in to our local TV station even hours after the fires began, you wouldn't have known that anything out of the ordinary was happening. There was no mention of the fire for hours after it started. The TV station in Vancouver was better, with real-time coverage a few hours after the fire first started. But their "coverage" consisted of newscasters repeating the same limited information, which was at least 2 hours out of date, and playing the same 30-second video loop over and over. If you needed information, you would not have found it there.



The local news radio station fared a little better, reporting new evacuation areas as soon as they came through the official communication channels. But the real test came at about 8:45 p.m. that night. The original fire started near a sawmill on the west side of Okanagan Lake. Around the aforementioned time, I noticed a wisp of smoke far removed from the main fire. It seemed to me that a new fire had started, and this one was in the hills directly above the subdivision that my business partner lived in. Was this a new fire? Were the homes threatened? I ran in and asked my wife if she had heard anything about a second fire. Nothing was being reported on TV or radio. I checked the local news Web sites. Again, no report.

Turning to Twitter

So I tweeted about it. Within 15 minutes, someone replied that there did seem to be a second fire and fire crews had just gone by their house, on the way up to the location. Soon, there were more tweets with eyewitness accounts and reports of more fire crews. In 30 minutes, the Kelowna Twitter community had communicated the approximate location of the new fire, the official response, potential neighborhoods that might be evacuated and even the possible cause of the fire.

Yes, it was all unvetted and unauthorized, but it was in time to make a difference. It would take TV two more hours to report a possible new fire, and even then, they got most of the details wrong. The local radio station again beat TV to the punch, but (as I found out afterwards) only because a reporter was also monitoring Twitter.

We've all heard about the new power of social media, whether it be breaking the news of Michael Jackson's death or the elections in Iran, but for me, it took an event a little closer to home to help me realize the magnitude of this communication shift. Official channels are being hopelessly outstripped by the efficiency of technology-enabled communications. Communication flows freely, unrestricted by bottlenecks. One might argue that with the freedom in restrictions, one sacrifices veracity. There is no editor to double-check facts. But in the case of the Kelowna fires of 2009, at least, official channels proved to be even more inaccurate. Not everything I read on Twitter was true, but the corrections happened much faster than they did through the supposed "authorized" channels. Twitter had broken the news of Jackson's death while the official news sources still had him in the hospital with an undisclosed condition. When it came to timely, accurate information, social media beat the massive news machine hands down.

Do we need a two-hour jump on the news we hear? Is it really that important that we know about events as soon as they happen? When a fire is bearing down on your home and every minute gained means you might lose one less precious keepsake or treasured photo, you bet it's important.


5 comments about "The New Speed Of Information ".
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  1. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, August 27, 2009 at 11:08 a.m.

    Here is a perfect niche for Twitter. Real time broadcasts for emergency purposes. People can follow the local emergency address and receive updates when something bad happens...BUT what if you follow 500 people and everyone from around the country is tweeting and your receiving them all. Can you filter everything but the emergency information out so as not to have it drowned out? If you follow 200 twitter accounts that each send out 2 to 4 per day you sifting through 400 to 800 per day. I don't have time for that and would most likely just flee the area LOL.

    As for standard news a delay of a few minutes to hours means nothing to anyone.

  2. Q Chen from NYU Stern, August 27, 2009 at 12:14 p.m.

    I agree that social media can report news and updates a lot faster, but I face the same dilemma as Howie Galdfarb above. I only follow a small number of people and I can't read every tweet everyday. Plus, they are spread around the world. On top of that, that are a lot of fake accounts and spammers online. I can't see twitter being a replacement of offical news broadcasts.

  3. Glenn Laudenslager from Reed Medical Education, a divsion of Reed Exhibitions and Reed Elsevier, August 27, 2009 at 2:05 p.m.

    I disagree with you ALL.

    It is just a matter of processing information, and we all do that on a daily basis. There is software (Seesmic Desktop, TweetDeck) and hardware (an iPhone with Twitteriffic Premium) that facilitates reading and organizing tweets. You just have to process it. And, in some cases, it's not even a matter of processing all of it, it's just filtering the key pieces of information you need to, for example, flea the area. Information that you would otherwise not have access to. Nobody is suggesting that Twitter replace official news broadcasts -- what it is, however, is a different and more powerful form of content because it is immediate, real-time, from on the spot. Yes, you have to filter it for quality just like you filter which TV news station you watch or which cable network suits your lean. Yet it provides unique content that traditional journalism or news providers do not, because it is more of an insider's perspective than they can ever offer -- because it's created by the typical end user of news, instead of the news provider.

    To dismiss this as "the standard news delay means nothing" is ABSURD. It may mean nothing to you, but it means something to someone somewhere...possibly many people in many places. How do you define "standard news?" Are sports scores standard news? Well, guess what...finding out the final score of a soccer match in the second-tier German league, right when it ends from someone who is there, may mean a whole heckuva lot to a small social network of repatriots here in some random city in the US. To you, the delay means nothing. To that social network, it may have a whole lot of value. The social network -- from the macro-level right downn to the individual -- defines what, when and where immediacy and relevance have value, and what that value is.

    If the news broadcasts were savvy, they'd do just what was cited in the article -- monitor the social networks and begin to involve news from them to make their broadcasts more timely and reflective of reality.

  4. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, August 27, 2009 at 2:30 p.m.

    I think Glenn hits several nails on the head. I was a bit simplistic in my analysis (one can only get so deep in 750 words) but I think the important thing here is the flow of information and the democratization of it. Discontinuous innovations don't simply replace to earlier paradigm, they shake the entire landscape and things settle down into a new order. In the process, dinosaurs go extinct.

  5. Dave Kohl from First In Promotions, August 28, 2009 at 2:10 p.m.

    While your main point is about Twitter and social media, as an old school media person I think your story shows just how much the media we relied on for all those years has dipped when it comes to reporting.

    There used to be a time when TV and radio stations broke news stories in order to scoop the competition and when news organizations actually cared about being "first".

    Now, with corporate radio, many markets don't even have anyone on the air local who could take phone calls, look out the window, and alert others to go and cover a disaster in progrress. Voice tracking means nothing when there is important local news. On the TV side, we have layoffs of on air and behind the scenes people leaving no one to report on many important stories.

    Yet, these corporate heads sit there and wonder why they are losing audiences. After this fire story, who in that market will even think to try TV or radio for breaking news?

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