When (and why) social media fails...

A cranky report from the heart of a landscape that needed better citizen journalism but didn't get it.

I'm just getting back to real life after having lost power after the storm that hit Seattle last Thursday night—we got electricity last night. It was interesting to me that all the blog/social media created around the event, mostly by the various news outlets, managed to add precisely nothing to the information flow.

My family was hunkered down in a single room in a hotel downtown, because the temperature dropped into the 20s after the storm. What I wanted to know was: When will my neighborhood be reconnected to the grid? Driving back and forth to check was completely impractical, because there was a run on gas—and everything else that could be bought and sold, though I noted that Safeway did have plenty of beer on hand last night unlike during the legitimate Northwest disaster I lived through, Mount St. Helens. That was a party and a disaster!

The blogs created by the Tacoma News Tribune, for example, pointed to the power company sites, where I was able to read myself whatBeing a news junkie trumps relying on citizen journalism in a crisis where you are actually in the middle of things. was breathlessly recounted on the Trib blogs by reporters playing at blogging (which means they didn't have an editor to review the posting). I usually found the power company news releases long before the blogs got the information. Simply repurposing news releases doesn't a journalism make.

Being a news junkie trumps relying on citizen journalism in a crisis where you are actually in the middle of things.

The Tacoma and Seattle papers blogs didn't link out to people's blogs. The citizen submissions on their blogs did deal with facts—there were arguments between people about the "fact" power was on in a particular city when anyone could see the failure was checkerboarded phenomenon, which then devolved into complaints about neighborhoods, power companies and city government. No one stayed on topic and there was, and still is, a very pressing need for information.

Talk radio, which fielded questions from callers and then collected answers, such as "where can you get gas?" did a much better job than local blogs.

And, it was evident that as soon as the news organizations recovered it was back to editorial process as usual, when there was still a need for much more specific and personal reporting by citizens. The wrap-up stories, punctuated by the tragedies of people killing themselves to keep warm, were not sufficient in a time when many people are still wondering when their lives will get back to normal.

My blog was down, because I host it at home. So, there was no ability to contribute to an emergent response locally. Interactive mapping and other easily accessible technologies were not deployed. And, looking back at Katrina, one can see they were never deployed there to give a view of the long-term success and failure of the response by government and the people. Instead, the news cycle moved on and the community goes un-virtualized.

My conclusion: We're still creatures of the moment (always have been or we would not be repeating history so often). That means there is a new discipline to be developed if we are to better document events. Simply treating the subjects of interest as news without a long-term perspective is not the foundation for social growth.

Here are my suggestions for whomever might want to invest in the infrastructure for a civic journalism. These are mostly fact-gathering tools, because there's plenty of editorializing going on already, so enough with putting up a blog and calling it citizen journalism.

  • A permanent facility for easy mapping. People need a point, click and drag approach to making annotations to a map of their area. This would allow marking up of the a map not just for power outages, but also when writing about an upcoming sewer project, the limits of a watershed or the bus routes that might be canceled if the next municipal bond fails. Reporters at newspapers would benefit tremendously from this, as well. Just throwing up a map that explains where the corner that an assault took place would be more helpful than the written version only. Embed the thing in the newspaper site or your city's Web site. Just make sure it is always there.

  • Fact-checking tools. Besides writing down something, such as "the power is out in Lakewood," a contributor to a social news gathering system needs to be able to flag their posting for follow-ups by others in a particular location (in Lakewood) or social group (other people in School District 17 or "people on Welfare" or who belong to the same country club). Have the ability to submit an item to other people for review, because it is the reporter who asks for confirmation who gets things right.

  • Support volunteerism to get the long view of stories. When people read, they should also be able to sign up for follow-on updates and requests. This is the key to making the previous suggestion really fly—if readers have volunteered to make sure a project is completed they will stay more engaged, and when they get requests from others with similar interests their engagement is reactivated. This system can be implemented based on anonymous contributions and policed by members using existing social filtering tools to identify fakes who are attempting to undermine a full and honest report.

  • Tap local government databases, and really turn them over to the people. It took Zillow to collect all the information lying in county assessors' offices about local real estate and turn it into value. Newspapers should have been first. But they are in a position to undertake local data mining projects that combine their own archives and local government to provide much richer sources of data for citizens to ponder and argue about—and those arguments will take place wherever a facility exists to do it. This is why the Swivel "YouTube for data" approach is so interesting: Their traffic will ultimately flow through discussions of the data rather than be data traffic. But Swivel is just data processing; there's a huge opportunity for local media to become more local, more intimately involved with the community by helping to free local government data. Everything is counted: births/deaths, business transactions announced in the papers, public issues involving contracts, school performance, and much, much more. How about a map of all the local power substations? Would have been very useful in the Seattle area this week.

  • Tie major media to local blogs and vlogs. I don't mean host blogs and vlogs, but maintain a database of the people who do blog and record the local scene in audio and video. Expose it, especially in a crisis, so that people can ask—as they did through talk radio—for local information. I know there were plenty of bloggers in the Northwest with nothing better to do that go out and find what was going on, where there was gas and food. Any media folks who are worried this is handing the keys to the inmates is forgetting that we are a free people who do best when we organize and act together.