Discovering the Maximum Velocity of Twitter

As a kid at my local county fair, I used to ride a roller coaster that rumbled around a circular track as songs like Foreigner's Urgent blasted through a set of giant speakers.

Every few times around the track, the guy running the ride would pause the music long enough to bellow out one loud question:

Do you wanna go faster?

It didn't really matter how you answered. The ride got faster. I could hear that roller coaster guy's voice echoing in my head in the minutes following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.

I happened to be online as the story broke. I felt an urgent need for data. I opened about six tabs in my brower and started to hit the refresh button. Most news outlets had a breaking news alert about the shooting, but little else. I searched Twitter to increase the pace of the incoming data. Much of the data was repetitive, but it came in fast.

Within minutes, the tweets shifted from what happened to a deeper analysis of what it means. There were links to Sarah Palin's website and attacks on what some consider to be the increasing volume of poltically-motivated hate speech. Seconds later, those tweets were rebutted by others. The crime scene had barely been roped-off and already, much of the news gathering had been eclipsed by the news analysis.

Do you wanna go faster?

I did. I left my Twitter search window open as I returned to refreshing web pages. Give me something new. I need, I need. Boom. NPR reports that Giffords is dead. That news swept through the Twitterverse and on the Facebook page I now had open. I headed over the New York Times homepage. Nothing new. It still featured a stale blurb about conflicting reports on Giffords' health. Below to the blurb, I saw the phrase: Updated 4 minutes ago.

I refreshed a few more times and wondered to myself, "What have these people been wasting their time on for the last four minutes? Where is the news?"

Do you wanna go faster?

NPR did. But as it turned out, Giffords was not dead. She was in surgery. The false news of her death spread so quickly that it made it all the way to her family members who sat in the hospital waiting room. They had to confirm with doctors that Giffords was still alive.

The story moved so fast that it passed the reality.

So did the analysis and the thousands of Tweets by those who were certain about the larger context of what the events on the ground meant long before they had even a handful of details.

I thought about tweeting a condolence. I could possibly chime in on the debate regarding hate speech and Sarah Palin's role in all of this. Or maybe I'd offer a contrarian view about the pace at which each of us seems to achieve a level of certainty on any given topic. I've got to tweet something, right? This is what we do. Read, react, repeat. Sure, I had only known who Gabrielle Giffords was for about twenty minutes, but why should having no background on a topic and knowing almost none of the details about an event prevent me from serving up a concrete viewpoint?

It took everything I had not to Tweet.

Do you wanna go faster?

You can bet NPR wishes they hadn't gone that fast.

Already all of us at NPR News have been reminded of the challenges and professional responsibilities of reporting on fast-breaking news at a time and in an environment where information and misinformation move at light speed.

Even though NPR is not a brand I necessarily associate with fast-breaking news, I can understand any editor feeling an increased demand to get new material up right away.

But what about me? When did I turn into a human breaking-news outlet who has to keep up with the second-by-second details of a story and then add my own updates and analysis to the realtime mix? How can thousands of my fellow human news machines have served up 140 character analyses before law enforement officials on the ground even had a chance to put together a preliminary outline of what exactly happened?

Are you really sure you wanna go faster?

Just like that old county fair roller coaster, it probably doesn't matter what you answer. The speed is increasing. The pressure to keep up and immediately chime in will only grow more urgent. The challenge to maintain a reasonable level of factual accuracy will grow more daunting. And actually taking the time to gather and reflect on information before adding an opinion to the discussion will require more restraint.

But maybe I'm too late with this message. The whole story is old news by now.

Dave Pell is an internet addict, early adopter and insider. He blogs regularly at Tweetage Wasteland.

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