Traditionally, August is the last chance for a summer vacation, and many of my pals and colleagues have left behind their day jobs but not their internet connections. Even those who rarely update their Facebook status are now sending missives from airports, beaches, ballparks and museums. Kicking back and relaxing now includes letting your closest circle of friends–and their friends–know just how you like to kick back and relax and where you are doing it.
Instead of peeking at the latest issues of travel magazines for hip destinations, I can log onto Facebook and read about the beautiful Mexican sky, the glorious weather on Florida’s beaches and the delicious local delicacies in Cabo San Lucas. I can read about kayaking trips, which beer gets the highest ratings, who has discovered a new singer and the stadiums with the best concessions. Sometimes there are pictures that accompany the posts.
With the high cost of gasoline and the long security lines at airports, maybe Facebook travelogues will become the new armchair travel destination.
I’m not continually checking tweets to see who you had lunch with, or where you’re going on vacation. I’m only mildly curious if you had an unusual street encounter, but not terribly interested in what your boss said at the meeting that lasted way too long. And I don’t care what you bought at the grocery store.
Instead, I’m hooked on the endless updates from traditional news outlets such as CNN and The New York Times. I’m fascinated by their embrace of social media. I can’t get enough: Google World News, WSJ, and The Today Show‘s tweets from Beijing. For a former reporter, it’s a new, wonderful way to stay abreast of local, national and world news. And with a simple click, I can just as easily choose not to follow ‘what are you doing?’
I also get a kick out of the politicians who are tweeting. At first I just followed Obama, intrigued to see how his groundbreaking campaign would use this particular digital strategy. But then I became curious and wanted to see what the Clintons — both Hillary and Bill — were tweeting about. And, after Friday, I decided it could be interesting to follow John Edwards.
I am now a constant source of useful — or useless — information. I know what is happening in Georgia and I know what is happening on Capitol Hill. I even know what you ordered for lunch at that new restaurant everyone’s been dying to try. Sometimes it is too much information. Sometimes, not enough. Twitterers have to be very resourceful with the 140-character limit.
You know what I like best? Following tweets is easier than clicking through online versions of each newspaper or website. As for the hard copies I still have delivered to my front door? The day may soon come when I choose Twitter over newsprint-stained hands.
A February post on ReadWriteWeb tells about Twitter breaking news of a UK earthquake long before traditional media outlets were reporting. Robert Scoble did the same for the China earthquake earlier this year, and most recently, the July 29th earthquake in California was the subject of tweets while the Golden State was still shaking.
Early in my reporting career I worked for United Press International. When I would telephone an editor back in the bureau to dictate my story (in prehistoric 1978), the first question always asked: “Was AP (my chief competitor, the Associated Press) there?” Years later, working in the Washington, D.C. bureau of a financial wire service in the pre-cellphone days, my competitors and I would race for one of the few pay telephones stationed in the House or Senate office buildings when the chairman of the Federal Reserve answered a question during testimony that had the ability to move the financial markets.
When reporters started carrying cellphones and cameras were allowed into hearings and briefings, every comment, every answer, every statement had the ability to make news. Citizen journalists, bloggers and live television feeds have changed the landscape yet again.
And now Twitter is posed to change the speed that information is shared, or how news is broken or made. Just this past Friday, two congressmen spread the word about the GOP energy protest through their Twitter micro-blogs.
When stock, bond and commodity traders start tweeting, financial reporters may run to their Twitter accounts rather than a cellphone or a laptop to break the news.
In her July 20 blog post on Melissa’s Musings, my classmate so deftly noted that the milblogs we had been assigned to read “capture the human face of war in a way that the mainstream media often fails to do.” She’s right. A reporter asking questions of military officials during a press briefing cannot convey to his or her readers the same story; the same emotion; the same experience that a soldier in the middle of combat shares with the readers of his or her blog.
Colby Buzzell was a skateboarder who drifted between jobs before enlisting in the Army when he was 26. In Iraq, his habit of recording daily events, thoughts and other trivia in a journal became a popular blog. That blog morphed into a book, My War. Buzzell writes like he talks, which makes his view of history blunt and refreshing.
It is also another very human look at war. Buzzell writes: “A platoon mate of mine was explaining to me one day that you had a better chance of getting killed driving on the freeways back home in the States than you had getting killed in combat in Iraq.
“Well, at first that sounded plausible, and I agreed with him, but then I started thinking. Back home in the States, I’d never had somebody try to fire an RPG or rocket at me on the freeway, and I’d never had somebody point his AK-47 at me and drop a mag of 7.62 on me while I was driving home from work. Both of which had happened to me in Mosul. In Iraq, it was not a matter of if you’d get hit, it was a matter of when.”
But it is not just soldiers who face danger in a war zone. Relief workers, contractors and reporters also are exposed to threats that most of us civilians cannot even imagine. Jackie Spinner, a business reporter for The Washington Post started covering the Iraq war by writing about the reconstruction contracts awarded to U.S. construction firms by the Department of Defense and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Spinner reported those stories from Washington, attending briefings and interviewing officials at the Pentagon, USAID and elsewhere. I was a reporter on the same beat, and Spinner soon became a familiar competitor. Myself and the other regulars on the reconstruction beat were probably a little jealous when Spinner went to Iraq for several days with an official delegation to tour the reconstruction projects. I remember excitedly reading her stories, curious to learn what she was observing first hand as she reported the reality of bringing long-neglected infrastructure back to Iraq.
After that brief trip, Spinner would return to Iraq, becoming a member of the Post’s Baghdad bureau. Her stories encompassed more than rebuilding. She was now a war correspondent and she wrote about war: bombs, battles, insurgents, kidnappings, attacks, killings and death. Occasionally, there was a lighter story describing her efforts to cook vegetarian meals in a land where fresh produce was rarely available. Spinner would remain in Iraq for more than a year. From this experience came a book, Tell Them I Didn’t Cry.
Spinner’s story casts a very human light on war as seen through the eyes of a witness. She describes the people she meets, the Iraqis who serve as translators and drivers for the Post, the everyday people trying to go about their daily lives, the soldiers she accompanies into battle, and the enemies who attempt to kidnap her. The book is filled with the sights, the sounds, the passion, the hope and the fear that is war in Iraq.
But there is one passage in her book that I will never forget. After Spinner returns home, she recounts waking in the night to go to the bathroom but it is only in the light of day the next morning that she realizes she crouched in the corner to relieve herself as if she was out in the desert on a combat mission in Iraq.
I’ve been watching YouTube postings about the war in Iraq. I am struck by how some of the videos look like video games and how some war footage is raw and how some is set to music. It is almost like it isn’t real. And yet, at the same time, it is very real.
During the first Gulf War, CNN changed the way those of us “back home” saw the war. For the first time, cameras recorded the fighting, scud attacks and blood shed which often appeared on our television screen without the filter of an editor. The frightened voices of journalists sometimes accompanied that raw footage.
Now, the current Iraq conflict is brought into our living rooms — or where ever our computer is set up — through video clips captured by camcorders or cell phones and posted on YouTube. No editor or journalistic filter is required.
I found myself wondering–just who was filming and posting these videos? Were these soldiers entering combat with a camera and a weapon? Was the film from journalists or bystanders? Who edited and added music and graphics to some of the postings? And why did some of the YouTube videos have 300+ views and others thousands. Or, as the one I just watched, “US Marines In Iraq Real Footage Warning Graphic” had more than 3 million hits. 3,642,405 to be exact. Is this the new citizen journalism? See for yourself: