Wick Communications

New social media uses

In Online media on March 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Police shot to death a man armed with several bombs who held three hostages Wednesday at the Discovery Communications building. Authorities said the hostages were safe.

That was the rather clunky breaking-news lead that msnbc.com shot across the transom on Sept. 1. That particular crazy hostage situation feels like years ago, doesn’t it? It seems such things happen with regularity now. Maybe it’s my advancing age.

Anyway, this was a very scary, very strange big news day in Washington, D.C. James J. Lee actually had bombs with him – one went off when he was shot by police. It’s not unusual, then, that the District of Columbia’s various news outlets jumped in with both feet, pouring on the resources and some resourceful thinking born of new technology.

An NBC news reporter lucked up when he called the building in a blind attempt to find out what was happening there. The mad bomber himself picked up the phone and the reporter and bad guy talked for a full 10 minutes before hanging up. (NBC wants you to know it called the authorities concurrently and didn’t report on the conversation until “the situation had been resolved.”)

Meanwhile, at TBD.com, social media producer Mandy Jenkins took a decidedly 21st century tack. TBD.com was a regional and hyperlocal start-up in D.C. that was getting a lot of buzz as a one of the better-funded of a new wave of online journalism projects and Jenkins, who retold events of that day at an American Press Institute seminar this week, was obsessed with the prospect of social media. (As an aside, Jenkins has been terminated and the TBD experiment is on life support. It barely lasted six months.) …

Jenkins furiously scanned Twitter, looking for – and finding – first-person sources and photos from the scene. That has become fairly standard. It’s what she attempted and failed to accomplish that is most interesting.

Jenkins uses Foursquare. It’s a geo-tagging outfit, or “location-based service” that allow users to “check in” wherever they are. She checked in at the Discovery Channel building in an attempt to find someone who was actually in the building where the hostage crisis was taking place in real time. The platform lets you see who else has checked in – and creepily enough, the other recent hangouts of those who check in. As it turns out, she didn’t find anyone there, at least not anyone she could then reach on Facebook or Twitter. But what if she had? It is the only way I know that you could actually find a complete stranger who is in a building without otherwise having some directory or personal knowledge of someone working there. It’s an intriguing thought and may well become the standard way to find people at such scenes in the future.

I asked Mandy if she had any qualms about “checking in” somewhere when she wasn’t really there. After all, isn’t she misrepresenting herself? Are journalists allowed to pretend to be somewhere they are not to get the story? If it’s OK to pretend to be in the building on Foursquare, could she have called police and pretended to be in the building in hopes of getting some inside information, perhaps the location of the bomber or instructions being given to hostages? Would that be OK?

She shrugged off the question. And she’s probably right. I think you may have to use extraordinary measures in extraordinary news scenes. And I thought her approach extraordinary.

To learn more about Foursquare, visit the Web site.

Clay

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