[If Ferguson happened before Twitter] In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death there’s unrest in Ferguson on Saturday night and large scale protests on Sunday night. The scale of the protests and the forceful actions of the Ferguson police attracts the attention of the national media. Anderson Cooper flies in on Monday. The Ferguson police department and local government know the rules of television — keep cameras away from the bad stuff, let Anderson do his report with a police cruiser in the background. Anderson does some interviews, gets a segment on Monday night cable news, goes back and forth with a talking head, but you can only listen to two reporters go back and forth on TV for so long. Change the channel. The President makes a statement on Tuesday morning. The public loses interest, the cameras go away, the police secure the town [and we’re seeing just what “secure the town” can look like] and the story’s dead in 3 days.
With Twitter the rules are different and we’re still not sure what they are. Everyone with a smartphone and a social media account can play the part of reporter. The police and local government can’t silence everyone. Get a scoop and your tweet or picture can go viral. With television people with good seats at sports games would tell their friends “Look for me on TV!” Being a viral part of a story that has captured the public’s imagination is much more intoxicating. Reporters can pick up 10s of thousands of followers in a few hours — there’s no more effective way to build a personal and professional brand. People on the ground can coordinate with each other and figure out who the de facto social media leaders are, which keeps protesters engaged and interested in a way they couldn’t have been in the TV era.
Television took off as a mass medium in the 1950’s but still tripped up Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential debate. He looked like a sweaty mess compared to the younger, more telegenic JFK. We see clips now of water cannons and police dogs in Alabama in the 1960’s and know that some in charge either didn’t appreciate or didn’t care about the power of this new mass medium.
We’re there again. Twitter is a decentralized, coordinated, viral communication medium. If the past is any guide it will change the power relationships between the powerful and some of the aggrieved over the next decade in ways we’re still coming to grips with. And it feels more like 1961 than 1968 out there.