The Twitter pandemic: Swine flu defines social media’s new age

Analyst Opinion – If someone tweets it, is it news? Should Twitter be our first stop when we want to know what’s going on? Do we even have a choice anymore?

Over the last year or so, Twitter has emerged as an early warning system of sorts for major breaking news stories. Following the earthquake that devastated the Sichuan region of China in May, tweets from the disaster zone gave the rest of the world its first glimpse of the scope of the devastation. When US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River in January, Twitter got the scoop on everyone else with a nowiconic picture of passengers waiting calmly for rescue on the wing of the downed plane.

As swine flu sweeps from its origins in Mexico to countless countries around the world, Twitter finds itself once more on the front lines of modern hybrid journalism. And as much as Twitterati appreciate the hair trigger ability to know what’s going on Right Now, such knowledge comes with a price.

In the land of social media, anyone can say anything. While the collective influence of the crowd tends to rein in anyone intent on posting the online equivalent of graffiti, the real-time web as exemplified by Twitter often makes this self-policing a bit of a joke. That’s because by the time the crowd has shamed the perpetrator back on the righteous path, the damage has already been done.

So as an endless barrage of tweets – from individuals, citizen journalists and major news outlets alike – raises our collective panic level around this emerging global story, we find ourselves knowing more about things sooner than ever before. But at the same time, we’re more vulnerable to misinformation. Individuals with no primary newsgathering capability of their own send out hastily worded, ill=informed messages in the hope that hyperbolic language will attract more attention. Conventional media journalists are just as guilty for using their Twitter pulpits to hawk upcoming shows and goose ratings. Like the teaser spots they play before going to commercial, they’re usually just exciting enough to get us to hang in – even if they’re misinformed and irresponsible.

Is Twitter providing a balanced public service that allows us to optimally manage our way through a potential threat to our collective health? Or is it helping some among us increase their ratings and raise their follower counts by spreading a little needless panic along the way?

No matter who you are, there’s nothing wrong with using Twitter as a tool to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world. It’s a welcome addition to the fast-evolving world of online media, and a great way to quickly plug into whatever network makes the most sense to us at any given moment. Where we begin to lose it is when we assume it’s the only thing we’ll need going forward. It isn’t. And in the absence of the context provided by using a well-chosen set of conventional and new media tools to stay up-to-date, we run a greater risk of being unable to separate fact from fiction.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian technology analyst and journalist covered with scars from his years leading IT help desks and managing software development projects for big bad insurance companies. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.