TCS Daily

Flash Media

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 17, 2004 12:00 AM

This column is about flash media. No, not the memory cards that go into digital cameras, MP3 players, and so on. But "flash media" in the sense of "flash mobs" -- media coverage that appears very rapidly, is largely self-organized, and that responds very quickly to events.

We've seen a lot of this sort of thing in recent years and last week's terrorist attacks in Madrid provided another example. Big media accounts led the coverage, but soon bloggers and others were filling in the gaps. The bloggers at Iberian Notes, an English-language weblog from Spain, provided extensive coverage and links. Many other bloggers joined in, with firsthand reporting, analysis, and observations. Australian journalist-blogger Tim Blair even turned over part of his weblog to two Spanish bloggers, prompting this comment from an American reader:

[C]onsider this: An American in Europe just recommended his predominantly American readership visit an Australian's website to read a post from some citizens of Spain. The world is smaller and smaller, and is shrinking due to the many benefits of civilization.

But while providing multiple viewpoints and firsthand reporting on stories that Big Media are covering to death is useful, what's more interesting is the way in which the Internet allows people to cover things that Big Media aren't covering. For example, there were big outpourings of sympathy in the United States, with a demonstration showing support at the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C., and others at Spanish consulates around the nation. These got almost no major-media coverage (this brief wire story is all I could find).

But they weren't ignored. My email started filling up with reports from people in Washington who attended the affair -- some sent me photos taken with cellphone cameras, some sent long reports, some sent photos from fancy digital cameras.

I put some of the reports together in a big composite post over at my InstaPundit weblog -- you can see it here, with links to other blog reports.

You can see some of those reports here, and here.

Others put up photos from the sympathy demonstration at the Spanish Consulate in San Francisco. In response to a widely-blogged suggestion, lots of people sent flowers, too.

It's not a big story, but it's an interesting example of how an event can be well and widely covered despite the near-total absence of Big Media coverage. (And, given the tendency of Big Media organizations' coverage to disappear into pay-content archives, or simply to vanish, it's coverage that's likely to have a longer shelf life than Big Media coverage would have.)

I think that this "flash media" coverage does a lot of good. Sometimes -- as in the Trent Lott case, documented in this case study by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, or in Iraqi blogger Zeyad's coverage of pro-democracy rallies in Baghdad, scooping the New York Times -- this sort of coverage gets Big Media entities interested. But even when it doesn't, it can take a story, like the Embassy demonstrations, that would otherwise go effectively uncovered, and let hundreds of thousands of people read about it, and see pictures (and occasionally even video) that they would otherwise miss.

I don't think that weblogs and flash media will replace Big Media any time soon. But I keep seeing evidence that they're doing a better and better job of supplementing, and challenging, Big Media coverage. I think that's a wonderful thing, and it's one reason why I'm such an evangelist for the spread of enabling technologies like web video and cheap digital cameras. The more people there are with these sorts of things, the more of a role for flash media in covering news.

What I keep waiting for is a neat and useful system for aggregating all of this content. (Er, besides my email box, I mean). Gadgets like Technorati and Daypop and Feedster do a decent job, but there's definitely room for something more sophisticated. A Google News for the blogosphere? Something like that.

I hope it comes along soon. Because I don't mind being replaced by a robot. And I think the benefits of a system that could aggregate flash media in a useful way would be enormous. It might even make someone some money.

Glenn Reynolds recently wrote for TCS about reasons for space settlement.


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