Exploding rooftops and why the "Twitter Moment" is set to endure
At first we thought it was a bomb.
A friend and I eating lunch at my flat heard an explosion, a loud bang that reverberated off buildings and triggered screams from the nearby school playground.
Then the whine of sirens.
We rushed outside to see that the large supermarket opposite had been evacuated and that crowds were gathering in the street, bringing traffic screeching to a halt.
Around the corner, police and firemen had cordoned off a large part of Rue de la Convention. Ugly black smoke curled from the roof of one of the apartment blocks on Rue Blomet. Panicked people were running backwards and forwards, some on their mobile phones, others complaining that they had lost friends and family members in the chaos. Though it was unclear whether anyone had been injured, the road was swarming with ambulances.
Back at my flat, I phoned FRANCE 24 with an eyewitness report. But faster than I could explain what I’d seen – and certainly faster than any cameraman could have reached the burning building - the web was building a picture of events.
Within moments, this extraordinary photo flashed up on Twitpic (full credit to Twitter user @Ooouups) :
Quickly followed by a YouTube video :
And as for the Twittersphere – a search for #paris15 suddenly revealed at least fifty tweets offering different explanations, observations, and even a couple of barbecue-themed jokes about the developing situation:
For any international news channel covering global events, an explosion (it turned out no one was hurt) in a Paris district would be, in the wider scheme of things, very small fry. But to the residents of the 15th arrondissement, this felt huge. The panic was tangible. Tearful women poured out their fears for a mum and her eight month old twins living on the ninth floor. Firemen warned the crowds to stay back as they fought to contain the fire before it reached another gas canister nearby.
The web, though, isn’t like a news bulletin. It is limitless, collaborative, totally flexible, and on this occasion, as on many others, it did what it does best. It offered all of us a space to share what we had seen, in a non-hierarchical way, and not just with those we spoke to in the street – with the whole world. These people tweeting and posting their photos weren’t trained journalists in a war zone, they were just my switched-on neighbours. As the slogan for France 24’s "Observers" show says, “it’s them, it’s him, it’s her…and you can be part of it.” We can all be citizen journalists.
I have spoken on numerous occasions recently with Eric Olander – FRANCE 24’s Internet Editor and my Tech 24 partner – about how Twitter is revolutionising the way we do news. Without a doubt, the micro-blogging site’s latest, greatest scoop was the death of Osama bin Laden (we have @keithurbahn to thank for that). The days when you had to watch the US President's televised address to get your information are long gone - Twitter broke the story over an hour before Obama spoke.
Some broadcast journalists feel threatened by a creeping sense that Twitter is trying to usurp their métier. Not so. The site is a service that compliments traditional media sources. Users constantly post links to tried and trusted news websites, the Huffington Post, the New York Times, et al. It is also an enormously rich resource for journalists. If you log in on any given day, you’ll see lines on the conflict in Libya, on the unrest in Syria, on the opposition movement in Yemen, that won’t show up in the news agency-authored wires.
Of course, anything that comes directly from Twitter should be accompanied by a fat disclaimer, but our audiences aren’t stupid. In fact, they are better informed than ever, and sometimes better informed than us. News organizations no longer have any kind of monopoly on information. So let’s cast our net wider. Let’s integrate sites like Twitter into our everyday practices.
I don’t believe this is the Twitter Moment. I believe it’s the Twitter Age. And the faster the news business embraces Twitter’s potential, the richer its own content will be.