We all remember how gullible Americans were in 1938 when Welles’ War of the Worlds radio show was interpreted as a real alien invasion by many listeners tuning in mid-broadcast. What fools!
And yet we’re experiencing another trend in communication ripe for large-scale hoodwinking: the real-time web. As any grizzled, recently unemployed print journalist will tell you, what you gain in speed-to-market with blogs, you sometimes sacrifice in accuracy. I tend to stand in the middle of this argument: I prize in-depth reporting that you can’t get from bloggers (like David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers), and I value the new fifth column of citizen journalists and bloggers (i.e. the Iran election protests via mobile and Twitter).
What the real-time web and microblogging platforms like Twitter change is an even lower barrier to entry to spread news. The only problem is massive retweeting tends to suffer from the tragedy of the commons. See recent examples of Maya Angelou’s death, Zach Braff’s death, and yesterday’s balloon boy. Admittedly, many of these rumors were fanned by blogs and, in the case of Maya Angelou, paparazzi site TMZ. (I won’t get into the inherent humor in TMZ writing headlines about a poet’s health scare. Maybe later.) But at their center, these rumors spread with unprecedented speed thanks to the real-time web.
Of course you have to take the good with the bad. I’m a big fan of Twitter and the real-time web in general. What I can’t wait for is a coordinated, global hoax devised purely to burn up the trending charts on Twitter and spread from there.
A few ideas:
- Obama says “Fuck” under his breath at a press conference.
- The Pope falls down stairs.
- Cop car stolen in NYC. The car’s license plate would end up as the hashtag.
- Google removes “Don’t be evil” from mission statement.
- Steve Jobs faints.
Orson Welles, we miss you.