I was sitting in my cubicle at work on Thursday afternoon, trying out Twhirl (a great Adobe Air-based desktop Twitter client) when across my Twitter feed came a flurry of tweets about the death of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. I had barely finished reading the tweet when the news began to spread through the office like wildfire. Somehow we all received the news simultaneously, whether it was through Twitter, Facebook, text messages or RSS feeds. Within minutes we were all watching live feeds from CNN.com and other news sites, receiving up-to-the-minute updates, all thanks to the Internet.
Popular microblogging service Twitter crashed as a result of the increased activity caused by the news of Jackson’s death. Users reportedly sent over 50,000 tweets about the pop icon’s death in under an hour. Search giant Google received so many Michael Jackson hits that the company believed its servers were under attack and users “Googling” for Michael Jackson received an error message stating, “Your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application.”
The way the news of Michael Jackson’s death reached our ears is a prime example of how the Internet has changed communication and the speed at which we receive our news. Long gone are the days of reading yesterday’s news in the morning paper or spending every night with your local news anchor. Real-time delivery of breaking news is the now the name of the game. Web services like Twitter take word of mouth to the next level, allowing us to instantly communicate what we know to a mass audience. Facebook allows us to distribute information to our network of friends who can then pass that info on to other friends, allowing news to travel faster then ever before. RSS feeds allow subscribers instant access to news from reputable sources, such as newspapers, magazines and television networks.
Not only is news being reported in new ways, it is also being generated in new ways as well. With mobile computing devices such as iPhones and Blackberries, individuals are not limited to sitting down at a computer to receive information. These devices can make us participators in the newsgathering and sharing process. From wherever I am, I can send out a tweet, update my Facebook status or receive text messages from my friends. With the iPhone 3G S now featuring a video camera with direct and instant uploading to YouTube, you can bet that we will see a huge surge in video news posted directly from locations where important events are taking place. Take, for example, the recent protests in Iran. As the government has cracked down, preventing traditional journalists from reporting on the conflict, many of the major news networks have been featuring videos taken in the streets with personal cameras or even camera phones. One of the most jarring images of the entire ongoing saga, a young woman named Neda bleeding to death in the street, was filmed by two people holding camera phones. Instead of hearing reports from professional reporters on-site, breaking news has come to global networks in the form of tweets and Facebook messages. The news networks are reporting what they see on Twitter before their reporters can uncover and pass along the info.
Of course, one must be wary of such reporting methods. Some months ago someone posted a story on CNN’s user-generated news service, iReport.com, stating that Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs had died. The story spread across the Internet like wildfire and Apple’s stock plummeted before it was confirmed that Jobs was indeed still alive. Such are the potential tradeoffs of this information revolution.
With communication changing and progressing every day through the Internet, it is necessary that we become familiar with these new forms of communication. Services like Twitter and Facebook can be valuable tools, whether it be for communicating with old friends, promoting a business venture or receiving up-to-the-minute news. It’s up to us to figure out how to best use these services to fit our growing and changing needs — or the world may leave us behind.
Ben Wagner is a technology correspondent for Rhombus. When he’s not listening to “Thriller,” he tweets semi-regularly at http://www.twitter.com/ben_wagner.