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Social Media engagement: The Case of the Boston Marathon Attack


April 22, 2013

Doug Hadden, VP Products

Many of us are grappling with the effects of social media on governance and society. Some would like to think that technology does not make any fundamental change in human society. We are in a transitional phase where social media and mobility is empowering people to engage from LOL cats to the Arab Spring while also acting as an “echo chamber” for traditional media. We know that we are in a new phase because the new media is described as a modification of the current. Like “horseless carriages” or “moving pictures.” We see this in “data journalism.” And, we try to define concepts in wake of digital disruption. For example: is blogging journalism?

While we wonder whether blogging is journalism, we are rapidly finding that journalism is ceasing to be journalism. It’s the effect of the new medium.

It’s at these unfortunate times when we can observe this clash of the media titans. And, it’s no longer one cable news channel vs. another. Or, television vs newspapers. It’s social media contrasted with traditional media. I observed this disruption in the aftermath of the bombing at the Boston Marathon.

There are some lessons emerging that extend beyond media companies to enterprises and government:

  • Consumers are no longer passive consumers, they have become active content providers
  • Power is shifting from institutions and enterprises (whether governments, media outlets or large companies) to customers and citizens
  • Information and insight has become non-linear
  • Pattern recognition is replacing narrative where visualization, engagement, big data analytics are becoming critical
  • Many will continue to reject the latest medium as unworthy, vulgar or amateur – but this won’t change anything
  • The role of traditional media, governments, organizations and companies is changing

Media Effects – the Case of the Boston Marathon Tragedy

In times of great emotion and tension, the interplay among media can be jarring. Expression and engagement differed between social and traditional media in McLuhanesque fashion.

Storified by · Mon, Apr 22 2013 08:09:29

The Medium is the Messagezimmzimm001
@marshallmcluhan "The computer abolishes the human past by making it entirely present…a dialogue…as intimate as private speech" #mcluhanjackehill
Some initial brilliant observations via twitter captures the notion from media theorist Marshall McLuhan that electronic media makes us content providers rather than passive consumers.
In a sense we’re all journalists and also in a sense we’re all bombing suspectsSteve Murray
"It’s been a kind of a media literacy seminar – people are learning to be less stupid." Ingram
What’s really amazing is how pervasive Twitter has become. Everyone involved in this case, from the Suspect to the Mayor, is on Twitter.Nick Farina
"It’s Not About Whether Amateur Internet Journalism Is Good Or Bad, But That It Happens And Will Continue To Happen" Ingram
Social media, based on McLuhan’s 4 laws of media, retrieves aspects of community that had become lost during the industrial era. This engagement becomes personal where people become engaged despite physical or social distances.
RT @mikevacc: runners kept on going straight to Mass General to give blood; as tragedies destroy, random acts of kindness nourish.#BostonCindy Jutras
Stories of Kindness After the BombingIn all the horror in Boston Monday, there are also heartening stories about how kindness emerged from tragedy: people on Twitter urging others to note the people who run towards the explosions, not a way from them, to help; stories of heroism from runners; journalists who ran the marathon, springing into action to cover the story; the first responders.
Google Person Finder Locates Missing at Boston Marathon Explosion – Social Good
McLuhan believed that the printing press de-tribalized humanity. He suggested that electronic media was bringing us back to the always-on multiple senses acoustic space of tribal society. This electronic media becomes part of our nervous system. Social media becomes a super real non linear experience across the chaos of interconnected events. Information is crowdsourced and quality is crowdsourced as the experience becomes almost super real.
Boston is like a movie today. Surreal because it is real.Michael Krigsman
Boston bombing probe: Genie can’t be put back in bottle on crowdsourcing investigations, say expertsLess than 24 hours after law enforcement undertook the highest-profile crowd-sourcing effort in history – an attempt at identifying the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing – police were pleading with the public Friday to cease and desist, this time with regard to publicizing their tactical position via social media.
McLuhan suggested that the previous medium becomes the content for the current. Social media uses traditional media as content. Many see the repetition of traditional media as an echo chamber rather than something more networked, social and thoughtful. Those who see social media as noise fail to distinguish between, what McLuhan called, ‘figure’ and ‘ground’. 
Many people on my twitter feed were upset about the echo chamber yet thoughtful social insight merged in 140 characters or less. Some were more optimistic by seeing the utility of real-time social media compared to the pseudo real-time of traditional media like television.
It’s weird, right? It’s like Twitter and TV are two parallel universes of information, that journalists think can’t be combined.umair haque
+1 MT @superwuster: Breaking news is broken. But at least to its credit Twitter doesn’t even claim to be reliable Ingram
Television news gets talking heads to fill time. On Twitter, there are photos and first hand accounts. Guess which is better. #BostonMichael Krigsman
I’m seriously considering unfollowing every account that continues to push business & automated tweets right now. #bostonmarathonMichele J Martin
There are lots of people saying horrible things right now. You are under no obligation to amplify or draw attention to them.David Roberts
What matters: 1) who did it; 2) how they did it; 3) why they did it. What doesn’t matter: what we call it.Nate Silver
As the President addresses the nation, I’m recalling Margart Thatcher’s spot-on observation about terrorism and the "oxygen of publicity."Nigel Cameron
Really love how official sources are going direct to Twitter. More please.Anthony De Rosa
In the wake of the events of Boston, it’s interesting that there isn’t a rush to change profile pics. Grieving via social media is maturing.Shawn Ahmed
McLuhan’s view was that a new medium makes the previous ‘obsolete’. Obsolete does not mean not used or financially viable. The role of the medium changes and is affected by the new medium. The detective novel emerged after the telegraph as people wanted more involvement and connection.
 We are seeing the proliferation of sensational reporting and real-time editorializing by traditional media. The journalistic model of multiple sources prior to reporting becomes compromised when news outlets attempt to gain market share. These outlets must get the scoop on social media or arbitrage competitors by using social media as source.  
And, the visceral reaction to new media often makes us nostalgic for the old days when life wasn’t so sped up. This shows another of McLuhan’s laws of media: reversal. Too much real-time information creates even more “information overload.”
So irritating to hear Fox reporters go off on some huge speculation. Then say ‘but we don’t know actually.’ I really can’t stand TV newsLinda Raftree
If you thought the media was desperate to fill hours of TV with rushed views before, well, it ain’t over.Stephen Saideman
So sad. The media gorging that ensues after a modern tragedy is getting harder to stomach. Keep it factual and helpful. #bostonmarathonSean Percival
I’m worried that the major news outlets are running low on superlatives… Are there reserves somewhere? Like oil?Peter Shankman
CNN: "Something has just happened." Live footage in Watertown claiming the smell of smoke. "Something went off."Andy Carvin
"I shouldn’t say this on TV…." ….but I will anyway…. Hughes
PROPAGANDA MACHINE: Murdoch’s NYPost falsely reports Saudi suspect in custody; Murdoch’s FoxNews repeats story w/out mentioning NYPost. #p2Alan Rosenblatt
The Boston Marathon conspiracy theories have already started Policy
Insights into the role and value of different media depends on context. McLuhan thought that the majority of people lived in the past, that only the artist lived in the present. Some observers were not able to manage the “pattern recognition” needs of always-on social media.
On days like this I really wish somebody would deliver me a newspaper tomorrow morning.Brett Martin
.@margafret: but we don’t give up on TV because of CNN or on newspapers because of the Post, or on journalism in generalMathew Ingram
Gotta love the unintentional humor of CNN mocking the suspects’ amateurishness right after broadcasting their uncle’s addressMichael Koplow
We are pattern recognition machines. So good, that we often recognise patterns that aren’t really there. @OlafLewitzJoshua
+1 RT @joshtpm: Shorter Scolds: I lacked the judgement to distinguish the accurate & bogus stuff on twitter. So twitter is over.Mathew Ingram
The tabloid press over heats the event responding to more primitive emotions while other traditional media tries to find reason through contextualizing. The result is competing ‘narratives’. (Not to mention that the reporting itself is reported on.) McLuhan spoke of a post-literate future. Perhaps this will result in a focus on data (ie data journalism) and visualization that will provide more relevant narratives or eliminate narrative as we understand it.
Some traditional media is attempting to compete for eyes with social media. Tabloids and cable news outlets leverage sensationalism and polarizing points of view. Perhaps the more positive role of traditional media is in analysis and context. We saw both sensationalizing and effective analysis in traditional media in the wake of the attack. Although, much of the analysis wasn’t worthy and was quickly exposed through social media.
Dear media: See how law enforcement talking during press conference? Facts, no hyperbole, straightforward. You used to report news this way.Kara DeFrias
Editorial: Justice demands, get the bastards | Boston Herald
Worth noting @BostonGlobe has been very good on this all day. Resisted urge many times to put out questionable info; good impulse.Seth Mnookin
After Marathon attack, fellowship must prevail – The Boston GlobeBoston remembers its pain. The inscription on the back of the Beacon Hill memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his legendary Civil War regiment declares, "The memory of the just is blessed." The plaque on the Bay Village site of the Cocoanut Grove fire describes a "phoenix out of the ashes."
The @BostonGlobe print edition today is a nuanced, ferocious, multi-layered, moving piece of journalism. Entire staff should be proud.Seth Mnookin
Hopefully not OBE: my column this week for @pbsneedtoknow, telling everyone to keep calm & carry on
Keep calm and carry on | Need to Know | PBSThe tragedy this week in Boston, where homemade bombs ripped through a crowd watching the Marathon, is appalling: 3 confirmed dead so far, over a hundred wounded and dozens in critical condition. What can we learn about this attack? Is it preventable? Are we any less safe?
@mathewi When a newspaper is wrong (NYPost) it isn’t "newspapers" that are wrong. But when someone on Twitter/Reddit is, it’s the platform.Scott Lewis
Every media story of last 4 days: Twitter – fast, open, often wrong. MSM, pressured to keep up, also often wrong. Everybody sucks. The end.Will Bunch
The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky Defends Boston Bombing Coverage – ForbesWhen Does Web Media Cross the Line? At just after 2:50 PM – all of my social media sources lit up with news. There had been a bombing at the Boston Marathon. Within minutes, the twittesphere was linking, sharing, and re-tweeting links and information. Some of it was rumors, some of it was […]
‘Identity’ has become complex. McLuhan and others described how the printing press led to the nation state. The bewildering media overlay exposes the complexity of personal identity, yet there remains a need to articulate the root cause of the bombing to something simple as immigration, religion, country of origin etc.
The wrong kind of CaucasianIn 1901, a 28-year-old American named Leon Czolgosz assassinated US President William McKinley. Czolgosz was born in America, but he was of Polish descent. After McKinley died, the American media blamed Polish immigrants. They were outsiders, foreigners, with a suspicious religion – Catholicism – and strange last names.
Turn to Religion Split Bomb Suspects’ HomeA WSJ examination of the family of the Boston bombing suspects shows the family slipping into turmoil over the past five years. The upheaval was driven, at least in part, by a growing interest in religion by both Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother.
McLuhan brings the notion of violence as the search for identity in his 1968 debate with Norman Mailer.
Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan Debating 1968benforshay1
The irony of this clash between traditional and new media is the insistence that social media is a fermentation ground for rumour and trivia. Social media is considered vulgar and ‘not journalism’. In other words, not specialized and industrialized in McLuhan’s definition. Yet, to compete with the ‘always on’ social media, traditional journalists have incentives for scoops. This leads to increasingly inaccurate reporting whose quality becomes crowd sourced through social media. Traditional media outlets can be smug about inaccuracies echoing throughout the web while ignoring their own foibles.
Talking heads on the news are less interesting and insightful than comments on Twitter. #BostonMichael Krigsman
I love that big media relies on doxing to do research on the Tsarnaev brothers then it condemns "the Internet" for being out of controljoshuafoust
@texasinafrica take a pic and then crowdsource. Worked for the FBI ….Stephen Saideman
It’s hard to come into news via social media midstream and piece all the bits together…Amber Naslund
Coverage Of Bombing Suspects Could Change Social Media: In the wake of tragedy, the Internet and social media … T. Tung
Week in Boston will be analyzed from countless perspectives – incl opportunities and limits of crowdsourcing. Mirchandani
A brief history of media mistakes | Articles | HomeCNN is yet again being criticized for misreporting a major news story. This time, the network claimed that a suspect had been arrested in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing. After the FBI issued a stern rebuke, the occasional news network backed away from the story.
CNN Quits Breaking News, BecomesNEW YORK ( The Borowitz Report)-In a sweeping format change that marks the end of an era for the nation’s first cable news outlet, CNN announced today that it would no longer air breaking news and would instead re-run news stories of the past "that we know we got right."
#CNN is doing MUCH better today. They have just officially confirmed that #Watertown is in MassachusettsDavid Wild
Boston bombings: Social media spirals out of controlOver the last few days, thousands of people have taken to the Internet to play Sherlock Holmes. Armed with little more than grainy surveillance camera videos, cellphone photos and live tweets from police scanners, they have flooded the Web with clues, tips and speculation about what happened in Boston and who might have been behind it.
Not to say that crowd sourcing to achieve higher accuracy is foolproof.
deal architect : The limits to CrowdsourcingI am a big fan of crowdsourcing done right. GE’s use of Kaggle’s crowd to solve complex aviation challenges, or the use of Amazon Mechanical Turk for crowd scans of satellite imagery in the search for Jim Gray are two good examples. This week, however, we have seen two controversial examples of crowdsourcing.
So-called ‘fake news’ where humour is used to editorialize has become increasingly relevant. It also acts as commentary about the state of traditional media that it becoming increasingly desperate in the Internet era.
"Anyone can print accurate info., but @nypost always follows the 4 W’s of journalism: who, whatever, and why wait." Colbert Report
This Is A Tragedy-Does It Really Matter Exactly How Many People Died Or What Any Of The Details Are?Yesterday’s violent attack at the Boston Marathon has left all of us struggling to come to terms with such a senseless display of carnage. In the wake of this devastating tragedy, we at the New York Post join the nation in mourning those who were lost in this horrible event so that we may console one another and ultimately emerge from this catastrophe stronger and with a greater compassion for one another.
One thing you’ll never hear on Twitter during a live news event: "We’ll be right back after this commercial."Nick Bilton
Gawker: "Marathon Bombing Suspect Has Been Arrested and Is In Custody But Has Not Been Arrested and May Not Exist": Uberti
CNN Quits Breaking News, BecomesNEW YORK ( The Borowitz Report)-In a sweeping format change that marks the end of an era for the nation’s first cable news outlet, CNN announced today that it would no longer air breaking news and would instead re-run news stories of the past "that we know we got right."
Social media quickly flags inappropriate commercialization of tragedy. Businesses continue to treat social as a broadcast medium rather than operate within the network.
Social Media 101: IF YOU’RE NOT ADDING VALUE, SAY NOTHING. @Epicurious shows what NOT to do with this Twitter #FAIL Contreras
Kenneth Cole Draws Ire Over Gun Control TweetPerhaps fashion designer Kenneth Cole should stay off Twitter during sensitive political moments – or at least, his social media manager should. After provoking harsh criticism for a February 2011 tweet, in which the designer used the protests in Cairo to promote his spring collection, Cole was at it again Thursday.
Also: backlash against the ‘tech media’ ensued.
Why tech media had no business covering the Boston Marathon bombingNone of that was the case this week with the Boston Marathon bombing, when the eyes of the world turned toward Beantown with horror and compassion as terrorists targeted the world’s greatest footrace. Then, it was followed by a dramatic manhunt that finally ended Friday night.

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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