About noon Friday here in California, I happened to click on a Summize tab substituting for Twitter’s Track functionality and monitoring the use of my Twitter screen name. Someone named Scrabo had tweeted “Rumor here at NBC is that Tim Russert passed away”. A minute later another: “@stevegillmor Brokaw getting ready to go on air.”
Turning on NBC, then MSNBC, then CNN, I found nothing: reports on flooding in the Midwest, breaking news about a bomb attack in an Afghan prison, a strange obliviousness on the NBC outlets. Something about the first tweet resonated – “here at NBC” – and I went back to the computer and Summize, finding another tweet directed at me that said Wikipedia was already updated with the news. Jumping to the New York Times, a single line at the top of the home page. Finally, at 12:33 Tom Brokaw broke into programming with the news.
Today Summize has “Tim Russert” at the top of the Trending Topics list, with “Russert” third. The tweets continue to roll in 20 hours after the fact, even now at 9am Pacific at some 200 per hour. Twitter’s international audience lets the story follow the sun, but Russert’s fame is largely U.S. centric. Clearly we have lost what many consider the soul or conscience of our political process at the head of the stretch leading to November.
That same presidential race is the likely culprit in Twitter’s recent collapse and partitioning into minimal services. As the company scrambled to get some coherent strategy in place to keep users from tipping into a stampede away from the service, Twitter’s API was gated, the Web UI was dynamically stripped of pagination, @replies, and sometimes even the array of follow icons as event swarms stressed the servers. Most significantly, IM services over XMPP were the first to disappear and not yet fully restored, and with that the service known as Track that I was emulating with the third party Summize client when Russert collapsed.
We may look back at Monday’s Steve Jobs keynote at the WWDC as the point where Twitter stabilized enough to survive. Because of the intense developer interest in creating applications for the iPhone 3G product, the conference was sold out and, like Twitter services, the media gated to only a certain number from each outlet, whether blogger or mainstream. Missing the cut, I went to Plan B as I’ve often done when trips took me away to New York or CES during Apple rollouts.
As the event began, I followed Qik reports from Mike Arrington, page refreshes of photos and text from EnGadget, Techcrunch, Gizmodo, and Cnet, and a live video aggregation of various Ustreams and commentary from Leo Laporte’s TwiT Live. As Jobs took the stage, a video stream captured a murky view of the stage from too many rows back, but the audio proved unmanageable. Laporte’s chat stream produced a URL to a more stable audio feed that held up throughout the rest of the keynote. Arrington produced two short Qik videos of key sections that surfaced as Qik servers restabilized.
The net effect was exhilarating; a bootstrapped symphony of virtualized Steve Reality Distortion Field funneled through the MacBook AIR that I route every bit of my real time digital life through. Throughout, Twitter remained up except for a ten minute period when Jobs announced the 3G device’s price, and as the event retreated into the past Twitter services unseen for weeks began to reemerge.
Much has been made of the fanaticism spurred by social media events and seminal products such as the iPhone – the swarming of the early adopters, the trivialization of Twitter as a toy, you know the drill and the comments on this post will likely personalize the pushback. But an event such as Russert’s death and the emotional shock wave it produced put the lie to the notion that this stuff is echo chamber or A-List or whatever. 30 minutes before the world knew about this tragedy, someone I don’t know reached out and established a connection based on mutual affinity.
The magic of Twitter, and Ustream, and Qik, and all the social tools just now emerging, is this incredible, subtle, hacked, user-controlled information network, that in a million ways and micro-communities, performs as efficiently and professionally as the greatest media empires on Earth. In fact, the two have merged as we gain access to the tools of the trade while the trade gains access to our hearts and minds. Track will return, and with it a flowering of this new media revolution where the new boss is the same as the old boss: Us. And you’ll see Tim there in the front row, if you look closely.