Twitter, the Killers, and Us: Radical Connectivity & the Week in Boston

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Twitter, the Killers, and Us: Radical Connectivity & the Week in Boston

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Like all of Boston, I woke up Saturday morning feeling relief, grief, shock, and pride. I'm most proud of the city's incredible first responders and the medical community. They are true heroes.

And then there was the social media.

Televised images defined September 11th, 2001 for most of our nation; we followed the events of that tragedy almost entirely through TV news. This week was the inverse. Most of us followed everything entirely through social media. At first, it was exhilirating: Bostonians came out by the thousands to offer their homes to stranded marathoners using a Google spreadsheet. People came to the aid of victims and their families in a wide range of ways; a friend of my wife who went to high school with an injured victim started an online fundraising campaign for him & his family and raised $25,000 overnight. I found comfort in the responses of friends and families from around the world to my own posts to Facebook and Twitter, and eagerly clicked "like" when I saw friends and colleagues reporting their safety.

Twitter was essential, even if it was frequently wrong. Misinformation and speculation was rampant. Online communities like Redditt and 4Chan started crowdsourcing their own investigations, referred to as a 'Racist Where's Wally' by one commentator. Two men were wrongly identified as suspects through the tangled web of online communities' attempts to help the investigation (Redditt is even looking to make amends). Watching the dizzying stream of tweets during Friday night's manhunt was like standing on the sidelines watching a chaotic mob moving in every direction at once. More than ever before, watching the events of this week in Boston I saw how removed our leaders and institutions are from the reality of social media.

Social media isn't very old. It does not have norms, values, or institutions with integrity. At the same time, our institutions are out of sync with the reality of our times. Sure, the Boston Police Department was on Twitter -- even using it to debunk misinformation that had gone viral. (Bizarrely, The President of Chechnya took to Instagram to make a statement.) The FBI and the Boston Police provided a tip line via phone and an online form -- but in this day and age, that is a primitive way of harnessing the power of crowds.

In the era of radical connectivity, where 2/3rds of Americans have smart phones with the approximate power of a Cray Supercomputer, people are going to participate in the moment - to help investigate the crime, or to break the news. The desire of people to participate isn't going away -- it is only going to grow. We need our institutions and our leaders to develop ways of channeling people's energy to help and extend the resources of law enforcement, journalism, and other institutions. People want to do something in the moment - and if we don't give them things to do, they're going to find ways to help

There are best practices for crowd-sourcing, well-established over the last decade, but noone followed this week. Here are a few of them: Define the problem, provide a lot of data, have a clear process to drive people through, and make sure you have a diverse network participating. (For a good dive into all of these, see David Weinberger's book "Too Big To Know") Asking people to email in their photos is a far cry from a management of volunteers through a complicated online process. Daniel Kreiss calls it "computational management" -- using technology, specifically webapps, to organize and drive volunteer energy in a specific direction in a sophisticated way. The design of the technology provides integrity to the efforts.

There is a growing gap between our traditional institutions -- like the news media and law enforcement -- and the growing power of social media. That gap is wide, and growing -- as this week's events reminded us. My book launches on Tuesday, and the principle reason I wrote the book was to provoke more discussion about the relationship between our largest institutions and the tremendous power individuals carry on social media. We need -- and deserve -- better ways of participating in the important work of our institutions.

Cross-posted to Huffington Post.

P.S. Here are some other good reads on social media's role in this week's tragic events: