The intimacy of disaster: why journalism is personal, and the main challenge of 21st century media

I’m starting to see patterns in people’s memories of the 9/11 attacks.

I’ve been reading a lot of people’s stories lately, as we’re collecting them over at Citizenside. When you’ve read enough of these recollections, you start seeing patterns. One motif keeps coming back time after time: the phone call from a loved one.

At home, at work, on that day many of us were interrupted by a phone call from a friend, a parent, a child.

“Turn on the TV, something’s happened,” they said.

That phone call played out a billion times around the world that day. It was, in a sense, a proto-tweet. After all, what’s more common on Twitter than “I have seen something that you should check out”?

At its essence, that phone call is a basic act of journalism, motivated by a personal relationship. It’s about sharing information with your nearest and dearest in an emergency.

If something on the scale of 9/11 were to happen today, the results from a media perspective would be quite different. Eye-witnesses would flood the internet with video, photos, and other content. Facebook, Twitter, and other services would be blazing with links shared and re-shared. The scale of this content sharing would be colossal, petabytes per second.

But if you zero in on an individual’s action – whether it’s filming and posting a video, commenting, or linking to it – it comes down to something very personal.

We’ve all seen the multimillion-view scoring videos on YouTube: the music videos, the random viral hits, the subversive advertising ads. But that’s just the thinnest slice of what’s posted there, and it’s not representative of the majority of what’s out there.

My team here at Citizenside contacts people every day regarding fascinating videos they’ve taken of news events. Often they only have a few dozen views. They weren’t uploaded by someone who wanted to get a million hits and an ad deal. They’re usually uploaded by someone who was in the right place at the right time and wanted to show their friends and family something they saw.

The subtext of posting a video on YouTube is often “This is what I have seen. You need to know it, because you are someone I care about.” It’s a personal act to film something, upload the video, and tell your friends. We are members of networks because of personal connections. The really important business of news happens between these personal connections, on a personal scale: we witness an event and tell others about it.

That’s the main difference between 2001 and 2011. Now sharing news can mean sharing videos, pictures and other stuff, rather than just a simple phone call. When stuff happens, we still tell our loved ones about it. Only now we do it in ways that generates ‘content’ as a by-product.

A billion photos texted around the world generate content in a way a billion phone calls don’t.

The kicker here is that all this content we’re all generating has value to people beyond its immediate (and personal) audience. It has information value to a wider network of people beyond our loved ones. In some cases, it even has economic value.

This has created the major media challenge of the second decade of the 21st century: finding a way to extract maximum benefit from that flood of content generated by millions of essentially personal information transactions among small groups of people.

Note that I say ‘benefit’ here and not ‘profit’. Overall, everyone benefits when information is more easily available. Yes, some people may make a lot of money off of this, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s a different story. And exactly how to do it is still an open question.

Don’t be fooled by the broadcast towers, the printing presses, the millionfold growth figures of Twitter and Facebook. Even in the case of huge, world-stopping news like 9/11. At its essence, news reporting happens one-to-one, because individual people want to share something important with their friends.

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