This ain’t Uncle Walter’s world

If there were even an iota of doubt that the world has changed because of digital technologies, it should be erased now and forever by the Haiti earthquake. As I listened recently to an official source tell me “off the record” information, I was reading that same information on Facebook, and I received a link from a colleague about an online newspaper article containing the information. My “source” wanted to keep this “under the radar,” but he couldn’t keep it off the Internet.

Today information moves at the speed of the Internet. “Under the radar” is a quaint colloquialism. This new reality comes as disruptive and threatening to established communications patterns and traditional command and control organizations because it introduces a new set of values and new ways of perceiving.

It means the gatekeepers have lost control of the gate through which information flows. They can’t move fast enough because there are just too many cell phones and laptops in the hands of too many individuals with data packages and wireless access. There are too many gates to control. Those institutions that try will break down under the strain or become irrelevant. We will simply go elsewhere for information.

In this superheated environment, if you do not contribute to the conversation, you cannot expect to influence it, and you are irrelevant to it – even if you are an official source. The conversation will continue without you, making up the story as it moves along.

Of course, this is uncomfortable. It is certainly frustrating. And it results in a crazy mix of fact and fantasy. Yet it happens and it won’t stop. Yearn as we may for yesteryear and news anchor Walter Cronkite telling us “that’s the way it is,” those days are gone and they’re not coming back.

As I have worked with staff of United Methodist Communications during this week of earthquake coverage, I have felt like the steel ball in an old pinball machine, buffeted in every area by new information, decisions or challenges. I move through one passageway and I get slammed backward and have to adjust because a new force has been exerted. Not just the news operation, but marketing, fundraising, technology infrastructure, web utilization, graphic design, and public information are all affected by these changes.

Add to this, input from Twitter, Google and Facebook – real-time conversation, reaction and utilization – and you have a rock ’em, sock ’em communications environment that is always on and always moving. And that, as Uncle Walter used to say, is the way it is.

2 Responses to “This ain’t Uncle Walter’s world”

  1. Shane January 18, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    Amazing coverage both in volume and variety.

    I rode the wave of angst, suspence, joy and sadness around the rescue and loss of two UMCOR leaders.

    I especially like the links to secular coverage that features the UMC. The MSNBC coverage of Clinton Rabb’s rescue was incredible, but then very unsettling when I later realised that Rev. Dixon died beside him and we were seeing his last moments, and Rabb died only days later.

    Now the challenge is to generate content that connects the dots….the loss of life in the earthquake was BECAUSE of the level of poverty…like Mitch in Nicaragua…like Katrina in New Orleans.

    What as people of faith do we do to empower Civil society to build sustainable community in Haiti. How do we prevent this turning into “Shock Doctrine”, as Naomi Klein calls it.

    I think it’s an opportunity for UMC in a few months to produce some intense personal stories of survival and loss and use them to connect the dots to the role of poverty in the crisis.

    Otherwise we will just pat ourselves on the back
    for our wealthy response to a “natural” disaster.

    Okay, off my soapbox.

  2. Larry January 18, 2010 at 9:30 pm #

    Shane,
    We must not let this be a short-term crisis. Haiti has been a long-term “crisis” for far too long. This is the opportunity to work toward lasting change, as Jim Gulley says in an interview on umc.org this afternoon. Pam Carter made this point a couple of days ago as well.
    Stay on your soap box, friend. We must not forget, nor retreat.
    Larry

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