On (Haiti) Twitter Streams and Tugging Heartstrings

This will be the first of what I hope are relatively rare detours from my main objective of chronicling the launch of a new world news site. It’s all linked, of course, in part because no matter what I’m working on or thinking about, no more than 10 minutes pass without my brain rewiring back to the project and its many moving parts and shifting uncertainties. A new funding possibility has arisen, while work continues on the prototype website. Of course much more to come on both fronts. But there is a personal bit of irony (or inevitability?) at play here: after years of armchair quarterbacking/critiquing website layouts and functionality — both from the point of view of journalist and reader — by the time I actually get to step on the field and help decide how one will look and behave…I have just gotten swept up by the next platform. That is, Twitter.

Thus when I think about the website, I think about Twitter, and whatever other platforms exist or will exist in Feed form, which I am convinced is how much of news and information will be consumed in the foreseeable future… But two months and just 50-something tweets after signing up, I’ve naturally been thinking a lot of other things about Twitter too, as I mostly watch and consume from the sidelines. Here’s one Thought-in-Progress…

If you find yourself in a poor country, suddenly surrounded by poor children desperately trying to sell trinkets for pennies, or you’re strolling down a First-World urban boulevard and happen to catch the eye of a desperate panhandler, many big questions and one smaller, straightforward question may (or may not) start shooting through your mind. If only for that passing moment. Why does such human misery still exist in our world of plenty?  How does destiny play its course? What can I do (within the limits of my own selfishness and distractedness and personal obligations) to even slightly account for all the suffering in the face of my own good fortune? And that leads straight to the single, simple question ricocheting in your mind in front of a person with their hand held out: Do I give something?

Over the past week, we have suddenly seen these internal morality plays come out in full view on a massive scale – and in real time – thanks to the likes of Twitter, and other social media platforms. We had already witnessed Twitter’s power to circulate hard-to-get information during the post-Iran election unrest. Michael Jackson’s death set off a new kind of instantaneous collective nostalgia on the pages of Facebook and tweets of Twitter. Now, the story line with the Haiti earthquake is Twitter’s debut as real-time collection hat.

Raising money via the web of course is hardly new, nor are e-outpourings of grief. But the unprecedented $20 million collected in a virtual flash via text messaging is a rather stunning development, triggered by the masses of instinctive responses to calls for help in the face of what is by far the most massive human tragedy since real-time became our time. “text *Haiti* to 90999 for a $10 donation to the Red Cross! It’s that easy!,” trumpeted a Michigan sales manager named Andy, who was repeating a message multiplying on computer screens and cell phones for days. The “c’mon guys!” rallying cries, like the collected money itself, should rightly be celebrated.

But if possible, I want to just try to understand what comes with this outpouring, and what it says about the hyper-connected digital world we are becoming.

Typically, the moment of facing a stranger’s suffering remains confined within our individual conscience (or sub-conscience), and attempts to actually articulate why we do or don’t drop that coin in the hat inevitably come out sounding maudlin or callous or just plain schizophrenic. That hasn’t seemed to stop the countless would-be do-gooders from broadcasting their hearts on their Twitter sleeves. For some, it sounds much like those personal tweet of condolences “shouted out” to Michael Jackson’s family, to momentarily feel a part of the world of around-the-clock publicity. Others want to simply impress that new sort of social network populated by “friends” and “followers”.

But many, I think, are actually trying to hash out how the horrible situation in Haiti makes them feel, by firing out messages as if their thoughts are still just banging around in their head. Some address the social and political aspects of what has happened, noting Haiti’s intractable poverty that has long gone unaddressed. Still, most commentary is much more reactive.  “What’s happening?”, after all, is the standing invitation that Twitter offers, as if both no one and everyone is listening. A certain Chinadoll1017 tells us: “All the news reports about Haiti is bumming me out. So depressing…I wish I could help :(“

Another twitterer mephistolesnc, says she’s “Watching Anderson Cooper on CNN. These stories are horrible.” Hours later, after a series of unrelated, jokey postings, she announces: “My donation confirmation—> Fund Name: ontd_startrek: Help for Haiti Date: Jan 14, 2010 6:29:58 PM (over $8000 raised so far!)” Another person sums up her day a week into the Haiti drama: “3 great things today: doing a little charity w/my partner, making pot roast & hearing my kid count to 10. Edgy…right?”

No, Twitter is not the right place, and 140 characters are not sufficient space, to make sense of either these events, or the emotions they provoke as they exist in the context of the lives we are doing our best to live. Dave Eggers works through the sense of guilt and helplessness much more successfully in his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, while the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani has spent years tugging at the contradictions of how we process the grave inequities of our consumer-driven modern culture.

Now Twitter is tearing down more walls and quickening the tempo of this dynamic. Scrolling through the “feed”, the news is no longer separated by sections of the newspaper or the size of headline. And of course, there is no separating the news and information and intelligent analysis from the meandering thoughts of, well, everyone. All tweets were created equal. And speed is of the essence. In this light, it all can’t help but to make me wonder if the person who declares that watching Haitian earthquake victims is “so depressing” and drops ten bucks by SMS is no different than the comfortable masses passing by and dropping a dime in the hat of the huddled victim of hard circumstances. But how much more can we expect from ourselves?

As we’ve seen both by the raising of money and consciousness (at least for now), these new media platforms have the potential to serve great new functions in society. But they can also push us further toward the numbing effects of banality.  It will be ever harder, it would seem, to break through all the chatter. Another medium, popular music, may continue to have better luck cutting through to create bona fide communication. There is one line, belted out by Bono, that tends to ring in my ears whenever there is something like what we’re seeing in Port-au-Prince over the past few days. It was a song written by Bob Geldolf that actually did help to – permanently – raise the world’s consciousness about poverty, hunger and inequality: Well tonight thank god it’s them instead of you…

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