Making Sense of "Social"

I’m going a little off topic today, but this is still in the category of observation.

How did you learn about the Asiana crash in San Francisco?

Were you on Twitter or Facebook? Did someone mention it during a phone call? Did someone yell it across the room?

Maybe you were watching TV and up popped a bulletin: Breaking News.

Watching the story unfold, I began to form an opinion of this chaotic method of information delivery we call social media.

First, anything is social media in my book. It’s social because we’re sharing information and sharing an experience. And it’s media because there has to be a channel through which the information flows – be it the aforementioned Twitter or television.

Here’s how I found out.

Russ Mitchell, a friend who’s a TV news anchor in Cleveland, posted a Facebook link to KTVU’s live streaming coverage. Not one who regularly watches streaming video on his laptop, I initially bypassed the KTVU link and instead Googled “San Francisco crash” and clicked through bulletins from newspaper web sites. It didn’t matter if the newspaper was in Boston or Baton Rouge or the Wall Street Journal – information is viral and location agnostic.

For the next hour, I searched Twitter using various hashtags – #sfo, #sfocrash, #sfoemergency – and followed the unfolding events through a chaotic series of 140-word blasts. The most arresting tweet was David Eun’s photo of the wreckage, taken minutes after he escaped the plane. Many of these amateur dispatches were speculative, but many were also sourced to various news media. I found myself sampling the early coverage from a broad array of web sites – many retransmitting Eun’s photo and duplicative information.

Fast forward about an hour. I wanted to catch the NTSB’s news conference so I went back and found the link to KTVU’s coverage. At this stage I was invested enough in the coverage to stream live video on my laptop. (Don’t ask me why but I’m averse to watching video on my Samsung Galaxy device.) Either I missed it or it had been postponed. Instead, San Francisco General was holding a media briefing and spokesperson Rachael Kagan was standing before the cameras. As befitting the risks of live TV, KTVU caught her giving a media-only phone number to assembled reporters, on which she promised to record patient updates throughout the evening. A minor error, considering no one at KTVU could possibly know Kagan was going to give the number.

As Kagan patiently answered questions about the conditions the crash victims and the hospital’s readiness to treat them, it occurred to me that I had now put my full faith in the abilities of the KTVU news department. No longer was I sampling via Twitter; I was submitting to a narrative of sorts, being led through the sequence of earlier events and current developments by an anchor in tie and shirtsleeves and a few reporters in the field.

And here’s the thing. It was all social. I was consuming bits of data and images provided by total strangers. I was relying on them to be my eyes and ears. I was even re-tweeting. I tweeted to my modest group of followers that the crash was commanding major attention and suggested they follow some variation of #sfo for the latest.

It occurred to me that when the big story breaks – a plane crash in San Francisco, Christopher Dorner’s “catch me if you can” with the LAPD or a California brush fire – this news consumer still finds value and places his trust in local television. Call me lazy, call me old-fashioned, but when I tire of Twitter or am looking for a different perspective, I still like to have TV thread it all together for me.

I commented on Russ’ post: “They’re doing a good job, IMO.” Minutes later, he agreed. “They really are!” Then someone commented “Us too.” It was Eric Thomas, an anchor at KGO, also in San Francisco. Then Russ posted a link to KGO’s coverage, to which Thomas replied “thanks man.” Some time later another poster thanked Thomas for bringing the story to viewers. Granted, most of us in this thread are newsies or former newsies, but to me it illustrated that television news is still relevant and useful when a big story breaks.

That’s when it’s at its best. And, we were demonstrating that the convergence of media is indeed powerful – using Facebook to promote TV.

Days later my M.O. has changed and I’m reading more accounts from newspaper web sites. Print media can still effectively tie it all up in a bow and is probably more effective at weaving in the more substantive investigative findings. It’s how I learned the pilot only had 43 hours on a 777 and that one of the victims may have been run over by an emergency vehicle. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’m often led to the paper’s site by a tweet or Facebook post.

Terrible tragedies bring strangers together. Social media gives us that rush of knowing that others are feeling many of the same feelings and experiencing adrenaline flow. TV – just as much a part of social media – allows us to sit back and let the story wash over us, but in a powerful way with marvelously blended words and sounds and pictures. IMHO.


  1. John I was on twitter and saw your retweet of David Eun's tweet. Had it not been for social media I would have been in the dark until I turned on the hourly NPR newscast.

  2. Herb, thanks for your comment. I think you and I are like millions of others who first learned of the crash via social media. For me, this particular event was a perfect storm in that I was at home with some time at my disposal and therefore had the opportunity to follow developments in a methodical way - first, darting around web sites then later, getting a more packaged roundup via traditional media (TV).

  3. With the barking German Shepherds in the background, I read "Terrible tragedies bring stringers together." I guess that's true, too.

    1. Crabigail: Funny how we misread something but it also holds true. Now, those German Shepherds need some doggie treats!