I'm old enough to remember when the "top 3" dominated the evening news, let alone having to manually changing the channel. Time and Newsweek led the magazine discourse, and the morning paper magically appeared on every neighborhood doorstep.
J.D. Fielder circa 1982 would first hear about the Boulder, Colorado fire at 5 PM, right before a leisurely dinner. Undoubtedly the entire nation would be riveted as Cronkite or Rather covered the fire, delivering the highlights in their practiced and soothing broadcast croons. "Going viral" meant getting a bad case of the flu.
Images of the fire would be transferred from wet film to satellite with considerable delay, and if viewers were lucky news channels would post some static and moving images with a printed map as a visual aid. Then a plea for help would be instantly broadcast to millions of homes through these three select channels.
The process was slow, and governed by professional gatekeepers (in the words of former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart); butt the boulder fire would have maximum national visibility in that small slice of evening news time, followed by reinforcement in the paper, magazines and over water coolers (Do offices still have water coolers?).
However, private communication was tethered and expensive. Until the big outlets released information, scattered friends and families where limited to land line and long distance communication--assuming they could get calls through the Boulder switches. Private communication further spread through phone and word-of-mouth: much faster than pre-telegraph days, but certainly not a real-time process.
Fast forward to 2010. J.D. Fielder has a professor who's from the Boulder area. He opens twitter and instantly receives notice of a wildfire in Boulder, Colorado. Since he's carefully built his follow list he reasonably trusts the flow of fire-related tweets.
He notifies his professor through email, who had no idea. She checks on her own favorite feeds to track developments. While J.D. consults pictures and Google Map Overlays on the Twitter stream, the professor uses her cellphone and email to contact her family.
A hash tag search finds Boulder residents and first responders posting GPS coordinates, crisis hotlines, donation text numbers, and even animal rescue operation centers all working together to save lives, save property, help the displaced, and forward information. Further, numerous news sites have video streams running on television and online.
The information stream is real-time and non-stop, and within minutes J.D. has reasonable situational awareness. So what's not to like?
As said above, I trust those I follow and the sites I consult. Perhaps too much, but I view my sources as vetted known quantities. In a way, I see my sources as gatekeepers, and I trust the information they're passing is accurate; and if it's not accurate, they'll either correct it, or I'll (hopefully) sort the bad intelligence from my broad aggregate of sources.
But I still assess new media offers two disadvantages:
1) Information is fragmented. Rather than being filtered, finished and fed through a handful of trusted entities, information flowing at Web 2.0 speed comes in both filtered and unfiltered varieties through thousands of sources. All the best Google overlays in the world aren't worth the bytes they're stored on if the information is false. Gatekeepers are few in the world of information overload.
2) People are fragmented. Sure, we're not limited to landline communication; but we're also not all informed by the same discourses. The "Big 3" are quaint leftovers in the Internet age. Print newspapers and magazines don't offer the immediacy of RSS feeds (although their respective online platforms may offer rapid content).
In short, who do you trust in an information environment without gatekeepers?
In 2006 Time declared "you" the Person of the Year, and the irony of a print magazine hailing user-generated content doesn't escape me. That said, rapid dissemination of Boulder Fire content demonstrates the best "we" have to offer.
But it it always so? Where do the recent Ground Zero "Mosque" and since-cancelled Koran burning events fit in? An optimist sees Web 2.0 as an elegant means of widening the discourse, while a pessimist sees the continuous churning of vitriolic information dividing us into highly-polarized camps. Would the potential Koran burning be a worldwide firestorm in the media environment of 1982?
I lean towards optimism, but do think we've lost something by losing the gatekeepers. I'd like to think that rational adults are smart enough to function as their own gatekeepers; but not all of us are rational. And even the smartest of us still must drink from a fire hose of content.
Thus I sort and evaluate.
And Boulder, Mosque and Koran aside, I'm left wondering where Beiber and Gaga would be in the YouTube-less world of 1982?