The New Speed of Information

First published August 27, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

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 But their “coverage” consisted of newscasters repeating the same limited information, which was at least 2 hours out of date, and playing the same 30-second video loop over and over.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.

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