If the earth shakes and no one Tweets about it, did it really happen?

23 Aug
Earthquake! by martinluff

Photo credit to martinluff

Or, In which I learn I’m a sucker

So today I’m sitting at my desk and all of a sudden I feel like I’m shaking… Okay, I’m going to kill the (lack of) suspense right here and tell you all that we could feel the earthquake here in Ohio.  It was so slight here that it could have been anything: maintenance on the building, construction outside, me having low blood sugar… My initial reaction, I’ll Google it:  “Earthquake August 23”.  Press Search.  …and Google comes up with nothing.  (Granted I should have realized that this would happen since Google’s not liveindexing anymore.)

So then I check Twitter.  About 90% of my feed was filled with “Dude, was that an earthquake?”  (About three minutes later those tweets were replaced with “I can’t believe everyone’s tweeting about the earthquake.”)  And seeing all those tweets, it was a strange feeling, some kind of combination of validation and relief.  Like, Twitter says there was an earthquake, so that proves it.  My own knowledge of what I had personally experienced wasn’t enough; I need social media to validate it for me.

(Here’s where we’re going to take a sharp turn in the narrative.  It’ll all come back around.  I promise.)

War of the Worlds and Media Hoaxes

War of the Worlds, Image from Movie

So, there was also a movie with Tom Cruise, but we're going to skip over that.

Recently I listed to a podcast about the War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast.  (The podcast was done by the lovely ladies of Stuff You Missed in History Class – I’d highly recommend any of their episodes.)  For those of you who don’t enjoy classic Sci-Fi, here’s a super brief run down:

War of the Worlds is a book by H.G. Wells; it’s about an alien invasion and takes place in London.  In 1938, Orson Welles (no relation), updated the story and used it as the basis of a live radio drama, setting the story in America, and telling it in news bulletin format.  Although it was announced that the program was a drama, estimates are that over 1,000,000 listeners across the country believed that it was real.  People panicked and ran into the street, others called the police and other government authorities.  It’s gone down in history as a media hoax, although it was never intended as such.

Now Panic and Freak Out

That's my kind of public service accouncement.

Got all that?  War of the World was a radio play that people believed was real news.

And I’ve been thinking about if something like that could happen today.  It’s conventional wisdom that the media cycle is moving faster than ever.  That means that corrections are coming faster, but it also means that unsubstantiated reports can now make it around the world in a minute.  I’d been thinking that for some sort of media hoax to be successful now, it would need to involve multiple outlets, ideally with multiple points of origin.  I’d thought that I would need to see something on the New York Times, HuffPo, and Slate, as well as my various social media feeds, to believe it.

“Maggie, how does all this related to Twitter, earthquakes, and you blood sugar?”

Well, it doesn’t relate to my blood sugar… But it does relate to Twitter and earthquakes!

Social Media as Reality

believe by Sidereel

Photo credit to Sidereel

At the moment when I really wanted to know something, one source was enough.  The first tweet that I saw about the earthquake was enough to make me believe that it was real.  It didn’t matter that I had felt it.  I didn’t matter that my co-workers had felt it, too.  It mattered that someone from Boston, who I’ve never met, said it was true.  And then I believed that it had really happened.

balance scale by winnifredxoxo

Photo credit to winnifredxoxo

I believe social media before I believe myself.  That was a scary realization.  (Far scarier than an earthquake that I could barley feel.)  In this circumstance, my believing if the event had taken place wasn’t all that important.  Whether I believe it took place or not, it doesn’t really matter; it doesn’t change anything.

But it got me thinking.  What if it was something big?  What if my belief, my reaction, really mattered?  What if there was some sort of outbreak (zompacalypse, anyone?) or an invasion of some sort (aliens, anyone?) or something a lot more reasonable (… like vampires?).  If I was ever in a situation where I had to believe myself or believe the internet, who would I believe?

Bat Boy LivesI’d like to think that I’m someone that has the courage of my convictions, that I’d keep faith in my own experience.  But I guess today proved that to be completely not true.  One social media source was enough to convince me where real life hadn’t been.  I guess for me, seeing it on the screen makes it Real.  So, if you see me retweeting things like “Bat Boy Lives,” you’ll know why.  (And, no, this is not an invitation to fill my various newsfeeds with outrageous rumors.)

Questions of the day: Did you feel the earthquake?  Where?  And, did you know what it was right away?  Or did you have to get some sort of internet confirmation?  And most importantly, Bat Boy is he real?


MaggieCakes is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole.  Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at 2maggieotoole@gmail.com.

8 Responses to “If the earth shakes and no one Tweets about it, did it really happen?”

  1. skippingstones August 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

    I did feel it. I was about 40 miles from the center and it was pretty shaky. I knew pretty quickly what it was.

    I just posted about it (because you know I had to): http://steadilyskippingstones.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/my-totally-inconsequential-earthquake-experience/

    Also, Bat Boy must be real, because I’ve seen his picture.

    • Maggie O'Toole August 25, 2011 at 11:41 am #

      “My Totally Inconsequential Earthquake Experience” — What a great post title!

      Seriously, Bat Boy lives. You know whatever is on the internet is true. By the way, I hear a Nigerian prince left you some money in his will.

  2. Morgan Mussell August 24, 2011 at 12:33 am #

    Hate to say this, but your reaction – disbelief and wanting confirmation/validation – is fairly typical. A few years ago I heard of a study suggesting that our brains are not wired to react very fast to radically unusual events. If we are driving and paying attention, we can react pretty fast to swerving cars, brake lights etc, but if a martian steps into the boulevard, we’re going to be much slower doing the right thing (hang a u-turn or run).

    Much of the input for this came from interviews with survivors of the Twin Towers on 9/11. The people who made it out spent an average of 10 minutes discussing with coworkers, whether they should leave or not, and once they made a decision, they locked up their files, tidied their desks, logged off their computers, etc.

    In other words, we humans tend to react with potentially fatal slowness to radical changes in our environment. The fact that you looked to Twitter for confirmation, simply makes sense, because next to having a friend in the room, it’s about as fast as you can get.

    • skippingstones August 24, 2011 at 12:50 am #

      Sorry to butt in, but that is very interesting. I wonder if, when we encounter something incongruous, we feel the need to understand it. We would compare and contrast it with what we already know and understand. We would step back and analyze. We would discuss it. All of that takes time.

      In the end, I think we would try to fit it into a slot or category that already exists. We desire normalcy. We kind of need to believe the world is not falling apart around our ears.

  3. georgettesullins August 24, 2011 at 5:39 am #

    Yes, my mother updated us on family in VA. Then I turned to fb for status updates.

    • Maggie O'Toole August 25, 2011 at 11:34 am #

      I find it more difficult to get information on things happening right now on Facebook than I do on Twitter. Even when switching from Top News to Most Recent, I still feel that what I see if skewed to the people/things that Facebook thinks I find interesting. Do you find that?

  4. Paul Leroux August 24, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    Last week, a rumor circulated that Jean Charest, Premier of the Province of Quebec had died. Wikipedia briefly echoed this misinformation. My response is to consult the traditional news media, rather than social media. Mind you, CNN has broadcast various conflicting reports about the Libyan rebels’ advances and Gadhafi’s whereabouts. There’s a great line in Frank Herbert’s science-fiction novel “Dune”: Do not believe that a person is dead until you have seen the body — and even then, you may be wrong.

    • Maggie O'Toole August 25, 2011 at 11:32 am #

      You’re right that new media and traditional media can bothe get it wrong. See the Dewey Defeats Truman example. And yes, I recognize the irony of linking to Wikiepedia in response to your comment.

      I tried to read Dune, but I just couldn’t get through it. I was like, “You keep hinting at sand worms, but you won’t show them to me!” He should have lead with the sand worms, would have kept my interest…

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