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Technology and Tragedy at the Boston Marathon

This post was originally published at Publicyte and by InTheCapital on April 16, 2013.

On 9/11, I was a grad student at UC-Irvine in California. I found out about the terrorist attacks from a professor on the elevator on the way up to my laboratory. I hadn’t watched TV that morning before heading to school. And remember, I was on the west coast, so at that time I was a couple hours behind the story. When I got to the lab, my labmate MIchelle and my advisor Tony were trying to get on CNN.com – they couldn’t. Everything was jammed. Tony and I took a monitor I was using to videotape (on VHS!) fruit fly behavior from the back room, moved it onto a table in the main lab, and rigged up an antenna made out of a metal coat hanger so we could watch the news. I think we had that monitor on NBC for about a week straight. We worked a little but mainly just stared at the TV.

I don’t even remember if I had a cell phone then. If I did, I sure don’t remember really using it. It was probably a basic Nokia model that made calls. I know it wasn’t a Blackberry or anything of the kind – I didn’t get one of those until I was living in Washington, DC years later – around 2008 or so. During 9/11, there were no apps, no social media, no mobile communications, nothing really that enabled regular people to take photos of something and share them in anything close to real time.

Yesterday, I was on a conference call around 3pm EST and I got a text from a family member in Boston. I grew up in Massachusetts and a lot of my family lives in Boston area. Turns out, two of my family members went to watch the Marathon yesterday. One of them runs marathons, and was supposed to be in the race, but for an injury about six months ago. He would have finished just a bit faster than the time on the clocks when the bombs went off, if he had been running full speed.

I stopped working after that conference call, got some junk food, and flipped between about seven different news channels. I mostly watched Fox Business and MSNBC and CNN because they seemed to have the best video and breaking news and interviewees. I heard CBS was great, too. I watched them this morning. Norah O’Donnell was in Boston near the scene, seemingly on the verge of tears for two hours. I can’t blame her.

I didn’t have my Twitter feed on 9/11, and neither did anyone else. I didn’t have Facebook either (it didn’t exist yet; Zuckerberg was in middle school or so), nor anything else that we today call social media. But yesterday I did, and I tweeted. I tweeted a lot.

Social media has gotten me a bit jaded lately, but I have to admit that I’d forgotten how many people cling to it for information about loved ones and loved things. I follow a lot of very solid people and sources on Twitter and Facebook, and combined with TV coverage, I sent about 20 tweets with heavily curated and interesting news and quotes during the afternoon and early evening. I got 200-300 retweets and comments or so. My friend Tommy asked me last night why people reach out to each other with social media during a crisis. I replied that people always reach out to each other in a crisis no matter what; it’s human nature. Social media scales human nature.

Technology played a big role in telling the story of the Boston Marathon bombing. The mainstream media, of course,broke news but also argued with itself in real time, the White House used Flickr to officially show that President Obama was meeting with homeland security advisers, and short video service Vine seems to have found purposein tragedy. My Facebook feed was nothing but Boston. Somebody set up a public Google Doc so people could offer their Boston homes to those who needed a place to stay. Boston.com used their “viral video” site to post the most horrific and accurate video I’ve seen of what happened; it’s all over TV this morning. The Reddit community is curating everything here.

The last thing I tweeted before I heard about the explosions in Boston was a link to “Photos from the MTV Music Awards photo booth.” I feel a little silly. But at least now because of innovative startup companies and new social media creations, I have the ability to look a little silly in hindsight. A decade or so ago, I couldn’t do anything but watch a rigged up TV in my lab and be quiet in my thoughts.

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