I have to admit, I’m not surprised. Your average Joe on the streets, witnessing crazed, cocaine-fueled boys shooting apparently indiscriminately at the general public, is not – and I repeat not – going to stop and send a quick text to Twitter to alert the world to their imminent demise. No, they’re going to run like hell in the other direction and hope to God their demise is not imminent.
This is a perfectly natural reaction: I defy anyone who is faced with a life-threatening situation not to run like hell. If they are going to use their phone, it is going to be so they can call their family to let them know a) they are OK or b) they are about to die. I know this for a fact because I have a friend who witnessed the bus exploding on 7/7. Her instinct was – in this order – run like she’d never run before and then call her dad whilst continuing to run like she’d never run before. She didn’t think to photograph the bus, or the bodies, or anything and, if Twitter had existed, I can pretty much guarantee she wouldn’t have tweeted either*. She didn’t care.
Frankly, only journalists are dumb enough to head towards crazed gunmen** or towards exploding buses through choice, and it would only occur to a journalist to send a text to Twitter, alerting the world of said crazed gunman (and even then, I question whether it might be a bit faster to give newsdesk a quick call. After all, you can never be entirely sure a text has gone through).
No, breaking the news was not for Twitter. The real groundbreaking moment for Twitter was after the initial confusion, when the gunshots have died down a little and some sense of cohesion has been regained.
The BBC started to run tweets alongside its coverage of the Mumbai crisis. Not journalists tweets, but “citizen” tweets. This was citizen journalism working – perhaps for the first time – in a major news event. The citizen journalism in itself was exciting. The use of Twitter was more so. After all, who had heard of “micro-blogging” a few months ago?
But it was problematic. The BBC ran tweets without checking their facts. As The Independent’s Tom Sutcliffe points out, the tweeters had no need to worry about accuracy or truth: “They’ll pass on rumour as readily as fact, and there’s absolutely no way of telling which is which.”
The BBC was forced into making an apology of sorts. It is a trusted source of news for millions: it cannot afford to make mistakes. Tweets, to a large extent, seem to equal mistakes.
Mumbai has certainly raised the general awareness of Twitter. In that way, it came of age. But then again, I don’t think it was overly hard to do. Outside of the world of the journo, not many have heard of Twitter.
Yet again, it seems to me it is the journalists not the public who are getting a little over-excited about this new technology which is going to “democratise” the media. Could Mumbai have been the start? Maybe. But journalists have to remember one thing: no one is as preoccupied with accuracy, truth and breaking the news as a journalist.
* Furthermore, in situations of the magnitude of 9/11 or 7/7 the networks usually go down so Twitter would be rendered pretty useless
**Police and army and firemen head towards crazed gunman too, I admit, but that’s part of their job description so they kind of have to