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Oliver Wright writes:

The noise of Twitter has reached a crescendo over the past couple of months, partly because of its role in sharing and even breaking news. The fact that it’s been used for this says something about the gaps in conventional forms of media.

One of the first news events that caught the attention of ‘tweeters’ was the earthquake in Sichuan in May last year, where people across China started using various blogging services – including Twitter – to tell friends and family that they were safe. A technology blogger, Robert Scoble, reported news about the earthquake ahead of the US Geological Survey (which tracks earthquakes in real time) simply from tweets he received from his followers in China.

Similarly (but with greater media coverage) with the Mumbai terrorist attacks, where tweeters effectively covered the event live, mashing up news from sources on the ground via tweeters and other agencies as new stories emerged. Doubts about the accuracy of these versions of events eventually led the Mumbai authorities to call for tweeters to stop spreading the news – a call that was, predictably, ignored. The viral nature of the information being spread by Twitter was captured, perhaps chillingly, by one user, “naomieve”, who wrote:

Mumbai is not a city under attack as much as it is a social media experiment in action.

The ‘social media experiment’ has continued with the Obama inauguration, the Hudson plane crash, and cyclist Lance Armstrong’s stolen bike (found) all receiving much publicity.

It was in the 1960s that the cultural analyst Marshall McLuhan argued that electronic media was a series of extensions to the human body which would create an ‘electronic interdependence’. As James Harkin observed recently in The Times,

The impact of this electronic information loop coursing through all our veins, McLuhan thought, could only enhance our ability to understand one another. It would, he felt sure, precipitate the rise of a “global village” and a new era of greater responsibility and understanding.

Instead, the cost of this electronic interdependence is a media landscape which is more fragmented than ever. Shared social experiences such as these are reduced to cultural nostalgia. But in an age where so much media, and politics, is carefully packaged, what Twitter – and media cousins such as the text message – can do is to reclaim a sense of immediacy, and to increase our sense of shared engagement in the events which are happening around us. Maybe McLuhan will have the last laugh after all.

The graphic is courtesy of Carrot Blog – on the addictive nature of Twitter.

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