Thursday, April 19, 2007

Virginia Tech and new communication tools

We mourn the loss of life at Virginia Tech.

A camera phone caught some of the shooting, the sounds at least, at Virginia Tech, as the massacre was going on.

This falls into the category of "citizen journalism" or "crowd sourcing", where "non-professionals" (so-called amateurs) or average people are using digital tools to deliver news faster than the mainstream media.

Students communicated with each other, and with family members, via blogs and Twitter.

A lesson we can learn from this tragedy is how we need instant communication channels, a network that can relay messages back and forth, during a crisis. School shootings, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and other events are good opportunities to use new mobile phone functionalities and online media tools.

Some people complain about the "narcissistic drivel" to be found in blogs and Twitter.

They focus on how others are using a tool, and decide it's not worth exploring. This is a faulty way of looking at it. We can ignore how others use these tools, and focus instead on how we can adopt them for our own purposes.

If many people use a cell phone, chat channel, email, or instant messaging for frivolous chatter, does that degrade the value of these tools, in themselves?

If many people use their mouths to say silly or abusive things, does that mean that talking is worthless, not important?

Here's a good description of how these tools are working, by Daniel Terdiman of CNET News: "Journalists look to bloggers for Virginia Tech story".


The media interest generated by the blog entry illustrated a very Web 2.0 dynamic--that of bloggers and others posting personal experiences to their own sites and others like Flickr, Digg and YouTube, and having those postings or videos be not only a primary source of news, but one that journalists turn to as a way to get the story, and get it now.

"The Web basically cuts the middleman out of the picture, and allows the people who were there on the scene to get their story out to a global audience immediately," said Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review.

"Of course, journalists can follow up on that, find these first-person witnesses or potential witnesses and interview them to draw more details out of them to further complete the story. So it allows the whole news-gathering process to move much more quickly."

Indeed, journalists, bloggers, camera phone, and video phone users are becoming a treasure trove of firsthand information.

This has proven true in situations like the 2005 London bombings, where some of the first and best reports and photographs came from individuals on the scene with their camera phones.

But now, more people than ever are using mobile phones with built-in video cameras, and that makes for an even richer supply of information than ever before.

For example, CNN ran video from a Virginia Tech student in which it's possible to hear what sound like gunshots in the background.


We can experiment with these new media tools, most of which are free and easy to use.

I'm sure that many parents wish now that Virginia Tech administrators had used email, Twitter, and blogs to alert students to danger, using as many channels of communication as possible.

Twitter is a online tool for status updates. It's like a blog, except you're limited to 140 characters, for mobile phone viewing.

Unlike RSS readers, or even email, you don't need to learn a new interface, or install a new program. You just go to your personal page on the Twitter web site, and type in "what you're doing now" or any other message, or links, you wish to send to your list of Followers.

We hope you never have to deal with a tragedy like the Virginia Tech massacre, or any other disaster. But if you do, it may help if you have tools like blogs, camera phones, cell phone video, and instant messaging/status update systems in place.

Again, these technologies are not complex or difficult. In many cases, they're free, or very inexpensive. When a life is in danger, when a parent is worried, when help is needed immediately, these new communication tools are available.

Also see: Doc Searls "News Grounds for Discussion" on mobile phone limitations compared to online tools, and how some stories are covered by citizens first, and journalists later.

For direct reports from Virginia Tech students, go to Planet Blacksburg (Executive Editor: Anthony Della Dalce):

There is a Planet Blacksburg Twitter page, and they just posted that they wish VTech had used Twitter to alert students to the shooter. Check it out:

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