Friday, May 6, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Global News, Local Questions

by Peggy Robin

What a week of news it’s been. I usually write about more locally focused topics, but all week long we've been riveted by news coming out of a neighborhood in Abbottabad, Pakistan. We’ve seen swarms of reporters standing outside a very ugly walled-off mansion in a town that we’ve been repeatedly told is mainly inhabited by retired members of Pakistan’s military and is the location of the country’s equivalent of West Point. The talking heads back at the 24-hour news desks keep up a constant discussion of the Big Issues: questions like: Are we safer now or less safe? Did the raid follow the rules of warfare? Were the public celebrations that broke out afterwards somehow unseemly?

While the pundits were arguing over these and other far-reaching questions, I found myself wondering about the local aspect of the story. What I especially wanted to know is how that vast, cheering crowd managed to materialize in front of the White House in a flash. The minute the President finished speaking, it seemed the cameras showed the whole of Lafayette Park packed with people. They were climbing the trees, climbing the light poles, singing in unison. They sounded pretty good, too.  How did they get the news, and how did they get downtown so fast?

Unlike any of those globally significant matters, my local "who" and "how" questions were, for the most part, quickly and accurately addressed with some brief and easily verifiable answers. The "who" turned out to be mostly students from GW, Georgetown, Howard, AU, Catholic and other local schools and programs, as well as recent graduates of other universities who have their first jobs or internships in our city. The "how" had a two-part answer. First, they heard the news of bin Laden's death via Twitter and Facebook, and second, they traveled on foot, via Metro, and using the new Capital Bikeshare program.

The data about the use of rental bicycles was the surprising part. I learned about it from an article the next day on Greater Greater Washington, which had a link to the tracking map for bikeshare usage that night. Whatever purposes the designers of Capital Bikeshare thought their bikes would serve (more commuting by bicycle, running of short errands, more exercise for users), I doubt very much they conceived that it would facilitate the appearance of a spontaneous celebratory crowd on a historic occasion such as this.

There is one question that I have that still is unanswered. How did everyone know to start singing the Star Spangled Banner on cue? That’s one I’m still waiting for some expert in crowd behavior to figure out.  

The following morning I was sent a survey that was bouncing around the internet, asking how I first heard the news. The choices were Twitter, Facebook, other Internet, TV, radio, phone call, newspaper.  I’m still wondering which single answer I should have picked.  Here’s the sequence of events.  My daughter, who was over at a friend’s house, studying for an exam, called home with a computer tech question around 10:30pm.  I answered the phone but as I don’t do computer tech support, I handed the call over to her father, Bill. Meanwhile, her friend took a quick break from studying to check his Facebook page.  He saw that a friend had just posted these words: TURN ON THE TV! He did and heard the news anchor say that Osama Bin Laden was dead. Bill heard her gasp into the phone, and then she repeated what she had just heard from the TV in the background. Bill repeated it to me and I turned on the TV and heard it, too. So the sequence is: Facebook to TV to phone to word-of-mouth to TV, all in under five seconds.  I decided that the right answer to the survey question was “phone” since word-of-mouth wasn’t even an option.

Decades from now if someone asks, “Do you remember how you heard Osama bin Laden was dead?” I suspect I may squash the sequence together and answer, “I got it from Facebook.”  Unless, of course, Facebook in the future becomes so outmoded that people might respond, "Facebook? That fad from the early years of the century?. Oh yes, I vaguely remember that.."

No comments:

Post a Comment