Around lunchtime today a man walked into a building on the Tottenham Court Road in central London and went up to the offices of a company which specialises in training Heavy Goods Vehicle drivers. Quite a lot of what happened next is, as yet, unclear.
Some reports on Twitter suggested he was armed, others that he had some kind of gas cannisters strapped to his body. He may have taken some people in the office hostage, however briefly.
What is clear is that at some point, not so long after he entered the office, a window was opened and stuff started to be thrown out. Documents, computer equipment, possibly office furniture. The police arrived in some numbers. Shortly after that, people in the area – and the Huffington Post, whose UK office shares the same building – were tweeting like crazy.
I’ve noticed a kind of evolution of news stories on Twitter. They tend to begin with two or three tweets, which are retweeted and joined by others until there’s a flood of rumour and hearsay and half-truths, reflecting and reinforcing each other until it’s hard to say for certain what’s happening – a case of the noise overwhelming the signal. In this case, one or two journalists I follow were in the area, and they tweeted what they saw rather than what they had heard. Hashtags start to appear, people congregate.
In the wake of this torrent of tweets you always get jokes, off-colour comments, people generally saying stupid stuff. Depending on how long the incident lasts, this can go on for a while. I know, because I have done it myself.
Finally, there’s a kind of postcoital period where people are catching up on what’s been going on. The hashtags sink down the trending table and finally disappear. The Twitter equivalent, I guess, of the crowd breaking up and moving off.
In this case, the man involved was arrested – whether he gave himself up or the police stormed the office, I still don’t know. There is speculation about his motives, but that, as far as I know, is still all it is, and I’m not going to repeat it here.
The ‘traditional’ media reacted differently. News 24 more or less ignored the incident, apart from reporting that it was taking place. Sky, on the other hand, gave it carpet coverage, and I’ve been wondering who was right. One journalist wondered why all the fuss, and theorised that if the incident had happened outside the Capital – in Stoke, say – it wouldn’t have attracted so much attention. Mic Wright countered this argument by making the very fair point that 7/7 was a ‘power surge’ on the Underground until the story became clear and that it was quite right for Sky to pay so much attention to it – there’s no way you can predict how a story like that will develop, unless you’re using hindsight. If the man involved had been carrying a bomb, and if it had gone off, that would have been a major story, whether in London or Stoke.
Incidents like this provide a kind of hothouse look at how we use social media like Twitter. This article (http://wallblog.co.uk/2012/04/27/is-twitter-ruining-journalism-or-are-journalists-ruining-twitter/) asks a couple of interesting questions about social media like Twitter, how we use them, and how they’re changing journalism.
Is Twitter ruining journalism? That’s hard to say. It’s certainly becoming a journalistic tool, both to transmit and receive information. I’m willing to bet the media got their initial tip-off about the Tottenham Court Road incident through Twitter either just before or at the same time as they heard about it through official Met channels. In that respect it’s no different from a newsroom getting a phone call from a member of the public on the ground. But it’s an unreliable beast. It’s the muttering of the crowd, a colossal game of Chinese Whispers in which are embedded reliable nuggets of information, and it needs to be approached with care from a journalistic perspective.
I can’t remember how old Twitter is, but I get the idea it can’t be much more than five or six years since it was launched. It’s an anarchic environment and it’s still evolving. Some extremely good writing is going on there, and some important stuff is being discussed. For myself, I mostly make knob jokes. But I don’t think we understand Twitter yet, or how important it’s going to be to journalism. Give it another couple of years.