Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, texting, and online news sources have not only transformed how we hear and know about breaking news, they also shape the events themselves. My daughter and I, and many others in the Homewood Flossmoor community, learned firsthand about how this works yesterday when our local Bank America was robbed, causing school districts in both towns to lock down their schools.
As I was standing in line at Starbucks Wednesday morning, Bank America was being robbed in the same strip mall. My daughter was in her French class at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, just a few blocks away.
Neither of us knew the robbery had happened until quite a bit later. The first inkling came in the form of a text from my daughter, a picture of her and a friend in their French class with the message, “Hi! We’re in lockdown.”
I saw the photo, two smiling teenagers, posing for a selfie and wondered what lock down meant. I texted back, “Are you really?” and added a dorky selfie of my own.
As her texts began to tell the story, I realized that the four or five screaming patrol cars I’d seen near Starbucks weren’t heading to an accident. They were blocking off access to the neighborhood where H-F high school is.
My texting with my daughter became more anxious. They were told only that there was a “dangerous community member.”
And then, the lock down was over.
From start to finish, this experience lasted about 45 minutes, and then the afterlife of the experience began. And this is the story of how technology shapes our experiences, for better or worse.
Twitter sounds the alarm
My daughter and her classmates learned that a SWAT team was surrounding their building because a passerby tweeted the information. He asked if any kids inside knew what was going on. Was everyone safe?
The communication that results in this sort of exchange is problematic, of course. The SWAT team knows where they are; presumably school officials know about the SWAT team; but teachers almost certainly don’t have that information. Few of the classrooms, perhaps none in that building, have windows.
The people inside, then, react to out of context information. Luckily, no chain reaction resulted, but as my daughter told me this after I’d picked her up from school, I imagined a kid screaming, a SWAT team storming the doors and chaos or injury resulting.
Facebook connects us
I told my story on Facebook as it was happening, in part seeking reassurance from friends. Reassurance definitely came, including the message from a friend that my daughter was “instagramming” the whole experience and that she seemed happy and safe.
Later in the day as I was learning more about the crime, including rumors of a hostage, Facebook also served as a way to reach other parents. I published H-F’s email to parents, which had information in it that parents of elementary school kids didn’t have.
Websites make fluids into solids
Since any fool with a cell phone can report the “news,” local newspapers file online reports before they should. News of a hostage and information that one of three suspects was in custody did nothing to ease my mind as I imagined my daughter walking outdoors from one building to the next after the the lock down was over.
The reporter quoted a police spokeswoman as saying that the situation was “fluid.” But once the words are on the page, under the banner of a respected news source, printed next to a series of photographs of a SWAT team, fluids become solids. The imagined seems real. And once the initial drama explodes, the official reports lag until police can dot the “I”s and cross the “T”s.
Telephones fail the parents
As Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the news sites on the web give blow by blow accounts, parents try to fight through the information to the only thing they actually care about. When can I pick up my kids and get them home?
Phone calls to the schools and from the schools provided more frustration than help. No parents can access their kids when a school is in lock down, of course, but when would we be able to pick them up? Answers were vague and oddly cheery at the same time. Calls from the school came after regular pick up times.
I’m reluctant to criticize the public schools or the online news sources in this incident. Both seemed to have their priorities straight. The schools protected the children first and focused on communication later. The news reported what it heard.
However, the schools reported to parents and children in muffled, vague, and, in some cases, oddly unconcerned ways. We learned important information too late. The news, competing with regular citizens like me and my kid, pinned down rumors and put them on their sites. With my daughter far away, instagramming her smiling face, I was reading about a, possibly unresolved, possible hostage situation in an apartment complex a few blocks from her school.
In the midst of this, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram picked up the slack with firsthand (and out of context) reporting and direct communication with the kids. The police, news sites, and the schools have access to all of these social media and are in much better positions to use them wisely and helpfully.
As technology moves from reflecting and reporting news into shaping and interacting with it, these institutions need to embrace social media and use it for their own purposes.
For full coverage of the event, see this story in the Chicago Tribune.
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