Almost a week before a 7.0 earthquake shook Alaska’s urban core to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in damage, lit up social media, and caught the attention of the national press, Jenny found her way home thanks to the internet.
She was among the many pets social media in various forms – Nextdoor, Facebook, Twitter – helps reunite with their owners every day in the Anchorage metro area. She was unusual only in that she was a donkey.
Not many Anchorage residents lose a donkey. Her disappearance was rare enough that a friend of owner Forrest Boehmler posted her disappearance in this way on Nextdoor: “Lost donkey ( no joke).”
That she was found several houses away from Boehmler’s Hillside residence would, he later observed, illustrate the “something positive” of the connectivity that social media has delivered to a vast segment of American society today.
Only days later that connectivity would be on display in a massive way as Southcentral Alaska shook and Alaskans turned immediately to the tubes to check on friends and loved ones, assess damage, find pets that fled in panic during the earthquake, and simply communicate with each other en masse.
So many of them were online that the internet sometimes slowed to a crawl, but it kept running.
“Cell phone companies are advising to text message or use social media instead of calling for non-emergencies due to the extremely high volume of calls on their networks,” the Anchorage Police Department advised the day after.
The advisory came, predictably enough, over the internet via email and Nixle, the online business that bills itself as the “open communication forum that connects public safety, municipalities, schools, businesses and the communities they serve.”
But email and Nixle were far from the only place on the internet government was communicating.
“The Mayor, Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll and Anchorage Fire Department Chief Jodie Hettrick will be giving a 4:30 p.m. update on all aspects of earthquake operations, damage and what residents currently need to know,” APD reported. “It will be broadcast live on our FB page.”
Much of the world now recognizes the FB acronym for Facebook, and almost as soon as the shaking stopped in Alaska, people were turning to that website to find out what happened.
A million monkeys
“Plenty of people have had fun with the famous notion that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite amount of time could eventually write the works of Shakespeare,” essayist Ken Ringle observed by way of defining the infinite monkey theorem in the Washington Post more than a decade ago.
The infinite monkey theorem has been around for more than a century and the idea behind it – that if the volume of data is large enough it can randomly produce quality – has been traced all the way back to Aristotle.
Aristotle, of course, could not have imagined the smart phone with a built-in camera that presents an instantly framed photo on a screen and requires almost no skill on the part of the user to capture a halfway decent photo – just point and shoot.
Imagine what an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of smartphones could do, and then consider what an infinite number of humans, even the dumbest of whom are smarter than a monkey, did do with this technology.
If you wanted the “visual news” of the earthquake, it was up and evolving by the minute on Facebook and Instagram as soon as the shaking stopped. You could see why the Seward Highway south out of Anchorage was stalled.
You could see why it was hard to get to the Anchorage International Airport going northbound off Anchorage’s Minnesota Drive.
You could see the problems north of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway.
And there was much, much more you could see coming in on an information stream provided by hundreds if not thousands of average Alaskans and a handful of government agencies.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Earthquake Center provided an excellent, real-time, online map of where from the earthquake and the dozens of aftershocks were originating.
For some in the Anchorage area, Facebook friends became for the day boots-on-the-ground reporters compiling their own photographic coverage of the quake and aggregating the coverage of others, as did Greg Johnson an Anchorage commercial pilot.
Once this sort of reporting was the forte of the traditional media. Breaking news has long been the bread-and-butter of local journalism across the country.
But the Anchorage shake of ’18 revealed all too well how much the battleground for news has been shaken by social media.
News has gone realtime and visual and that has given almost everyone the potential to be a reporter. The rise of this phenomenon portends big questions as to whether and in what form professional news gathering is to survive.
Its future would appear to hinge on bringing explanation to the chaos, but the traditional media is, by and large, poorly equipped to do that at this time. Many of the reporters working in Anchorage today don’t know the geography of the area let along the geology.
“Northern pike were introduced into waters of the Kenai Peninsula in the ’70s,” one working at a local TV station wrote recently, and then quoted a state fisheries biologist saying “pike got in there, in the lower Alexander River about 20 years ago, and that fishery went away.”
The Alexander – actually Alexander Creek, not river – is a tributary to the Susitna River on the Alaska mainland significantly to the north of the Kenai Peninsula.
Most Alaska fishermen know this. When local media make such errors and then leave them uncorrected for weeks as if no one in the entire news organization noticed, the knowledge base of a whole bunch of the traditional media becomes suspect.
And in a world where the weaknesses of once trusted sources of news are regularly exposed, it should come as no surprise that social media – especially visual social media – has become a new, go-to source for news, especially breaking news.
The problem is – as has been much discussed – that social media is also a prime breeding ground for “fake news” intentional or accidental.As a result, social media requires readers to do some serious weighing.
But, with that said, some of the best “reporting” of what was actually going on with the physics of the earthquake was on Facebook where geophysicist Peter Haeussler from Anchorage was keeping up a steady stream of posts, which included links to a solid, Tremblor.net explanation of the “exotic” earth movements that caused a “tensional quake in a compressional setting” wherein experts admitted to the”best explanation that we can come up with” plus a link to a very cool simulation of how the shocks radiated out from the epicenter as linked below.
In the information age, there are clear downsides to social media. It can spread disinformation and misinformation just as easily as accurate inforation.
But as Jenny and the earthquake illustrate, there are some pretty big upsides too. Maybe it’s time someone postulate an infinite social medium theorem.
What might it produce?