21 August 2011 was my daughter's 17th birthday. It was also the day Libyan rebels poured into Tripoli and sent Qaddafi skulking off to a currently undisclosed hidey hole.
Thanks to the latter, I burned the hamburgers. I couldn't break away from the real-time Libya updates. Couldn't, I tell you. I ran back into my office one too many times for another hit at the Twitter pipe, and before you know it the burgers were on fire (I thought they tasted fine, but the wife still beat me over the head with a rolled up newspaper).
For an old intel junkie like me, watching a crackpot regime unravel in real time from the comfort of my favorite chair was a splendid afternoon's entertainment. I had tabs open for Twitter, a Tripoli Google Map with attacks geolocated, a Sky News audio stream, and a separate twitter tab dedicated solely to a gentlemen posting open-source signals intelligence (tracking flights around the Mediterranean). I even did my best to contribute "new" information to the stream, although I couldn't verify everything I found. If beggars could be choosers, I'd of loved to have had an order of battle chart on the Libyan military, since at one point there was concern Qaddafi would launch ambushes on rebel rear areas.
In sum, social media and broadband Internet gave me access to sufficient open source information that I could build an operational picture of battlespace. Five to ten years ago I'd of needed on-the-job classified sources to do so.
But, with almost a week's distance between me and the rebel offensive, I've had time to reflect on what real-time access actually meant at the time. First, for me it was entertainment--a dopamine squirt in the brain for every rebel victory sign. But what barbaric entertainment it was: people dying, hospitals filled with the wounded, the heady scent of victory tainted by the acrid smell of burning tires, spent rounds, and the fear of locals trying to evade gunfire. And there I was, popping open a "Fat Tire" in between Twitter updates. Keeping score on social media makes one forget that gunfire isn't a sport. A Tripoli hospital photo spread in yesterday's print New York Times certainly brought me back down from the social media ether.
Next, information access made me feel as if I was there, in downtown Tripoli, a rebel standing against Qaddafi and his crazy 1970's hair. But let's get serious: I did nothing but act as a conduit of information for other chair-bound observers. Access to real-time information from multiple sources simply created the illusion of in-person participation; an illusion broken when I disconnected from the datastream to take my daughter's birthday cake out of the oven (thankfully, the cake turned out perfect).
Finally, as @acarvin, @blakehounshell, @timmathews, and others observed, how much of the information was truly new, let alone valid? Choking layers of rumor and exaggeration are seious pathologies of real-time intelligence gathering. Sources aren't verified, words such as CONFIRMED are applied liberally to make information sound factual. Spend enough time in front of the fire hose, and you'll learn to separate the wheat from the chaff; however, how many users have the time, training and experience to do so? I'll put it this way: I'm a professional geopolitical analyst, yet I undoubtedly retweeted information of dubious legitimacy. It's simply too easy to get swept up into the stream, where subjectivity is far more fun than objective and critical judgment.
Still, I prefer open access and its associated interpretive risks over informational blind spots. Next time, though, I should probably take my laptop with me to the deck instead of running in and out with my spatula.