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What if Orson Welles used Twitter?

(Originally posted on InformationZen by George Parapadakis on July 10, 2009 )

A scary Friday thought, but with a hint or reality thrown in…

A lot of people will be familiar with the famous War of the Worlds radio hoax story: In 1938, Orson Welles presented a Halloween spoof alien invasion story on CBS radio. The story was so believable that widespread panic ensued.

“The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual Martian invasion was in progress […] The program’s news-bulletin format was decried as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast” (Wikipedia)

In 1938, pre-TV era, radio was the most immediate medium for communicating information to people. People trusted the radio and in particular they trusted the News bulletins. In a way, Welles hijacked (abused, if you like) that trust. People reacted to snippets of unconfirmed information, because they implicitly trusted its source. The resulting panic was not the only effect. The trustworthiness of real news sources was questioned. A host of conspiracy theories followed. The same play was adapted and reused in other geographies, causing similar panic and even resulting in deaths.

Roll forward 70 years or so… The most immediate broadcast medium today, is Twitter. Based on 140-character snippets of unconfirmed information. Delivered straight to your mobile/cell phone, wherever you are. What if the BBC or Time or CNN (or anyone spoofing as them) were to broadcast an Orson Welles equivalent hoax. And the world re-tweets, seconds later…. What would today’s reaction be?

Would people panic? That means that people are trusting their social media sources as much as they trusted the radio in 1938. And twitter is a dangerous place to be!

Would they wait and double check their sources? If so, it means we are inherently NOT trusting the information we get from twitter. Which then questions the value of the medium.

Are we any more savvy today than people were in 1938? We would like to think so. But the thousands of people that daily fall victim to email and phone and get-rich-fast scams (and the proliferation of these scams) does not substantiate that belief… Fortunately or unfortunately, people are generally more naive than paranoid.

Have a good weekend! – George

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Put that down! You don’t know where it’s been…

(Originally posted on InformationZen by George Parapadakis on June 29, 2009)

Sometimes, we take too much for granted. Twitter is a wonderful and dangerous thing! Recently I had three twitter experiences which made me sit back and think again:

1) I saw Michael Jackson’s death twittered, before there was an article about it on the BBC News page. The immediacy of twitter as a medium is phenomenal. But “caveat emptor”. This time the news checked out when verified – it was true. It could have just as well been completely false, which would have equally driven crowds into mild panic and depression. So while I appreciate hearing about it first, I prefer the slightly more reserved “verify your sources first” approach of the news. Especially now that the conspiracy theorists are having a field day.

2) Re-twitting is what drives twitter and spreads information around faster than wildfire. Brilliantly simple concept and it really gives me a buzz to see people that I’ve never heard of, re-twitting my comments or my links. Just prefix with RT and the name of the original twitter and off you go. The other day however, someone RT’d one of my comments (thanks) but decided to slightly change half of it. The quip was funny, I appreciated his point and there was no malice intended. But it made me realise how easy it is for someone to put words into my mouth, by allegedly re-twitting something I’ve never said. People inherently trust information if they trust the source. There is no control in twitter-land for verifying that what someone says I said, is actually true! Combine that with the speed that information spreads on Twitter and you have a potential recipe for disaster!

3) Spare me the drivel! I think a lot of you will recognise this symptom: I am being very selective on twitter. I have a personal account and a work account. With my work account I follow people that relate to my work or have information that may be relevant to me. Including people from my own company. Recently I also joined a couple of twitter “communities” (twibes or Comtweets) from work, which changed my Twitter experience dramatically – I want to know what’s going on in my company. I don’t want to know the football results or what someone in Venezuela had for breakfast! The signal-to-noise ratio on some of these communities is very low. There is so much irrelevant noise that I am forced to un-follow them. I’m sure I will miss some important information from there. But it’s a small price to pay for not losing all the value of the other people I carefully decided to follow, who have something relevant to say and are now lost in the alphabet soup I receive.

I’m sure that over time, some form of informal “etiquette” will develop on twitter that will allow me to filter out the noise, verify re-tweets and validate news gossip. But until then I have to protect myself by treating everything with a little bit more caution than I have done so far.

Have you had any similar experiences that made you think twice about the value of social networking tools? I’d love to hear them and compile some sort of “Beware” list…

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