Thanks to Social Media, I No Longer Mistake Terrorists for Water Dispensers

Though I think of myself as a well-informed, up-to-date kind of guy, I have a history, shared with my wife, of drifting unconsciously out of the event stream and becoming completely unaware of what’s happening in the world. We’re not the kind of people who seek out media and keep a TV or radio on at all times. In the past, if we weren’t directly involved in major events, it sometimes took us a while to find out about them.

But in the aftermath of the announcement of bin Laden’s death last night, I realized something. In the social media era, it’s getting harder and harder for us to slip out of an awareness of the world. Events find us now, whether we’re looking for them or not.

In the old days, even the most epochal events had a much harder time tracking us down. Take 1994, for instance, when we drove with our two-year-old twin daughters from our Northridge home for a holiday weekend in Monterey, CA.  As we slept in  our motel in early morning hours of January 15, the Northridge earthquake struck. We woke up about 7 a.m. and had breakfast in the motel café. We didn’t turn on the TV in our room, and there was none in the café. We scanned the newspaper, but, of course, it told us only of yesterday’s events. Just before lunch, as we were window shopping in Carmel, my wife heard someone mention an earthquake. Where, she asked? The answer sent us flying to the nearest pay phone to call our relatives.

So on the day that one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history struck our hometown, it took us almost eight hours to hear about it. If we’d turned on the TV in our room or the radio in the car, or if we’d had the foresight to give our relatives the name of our motel in Monterey, we’d have heard sooner. But in the days before ubiquitous and networked mobile phones, it was easy to miss even huge news like that earthquake.

Given the rapid march of technology, you might think it would have been different seven years later. In September 2001, the Web was everywhere and mobile phones, though we owned none yet, were becoming more common. But text messaging was in its infancy, and the social web was yet to be born.

The weekend before 9/11, the supply line to a water dispenser in my company’s kitchen had burst, and on Monday the 10th, the staff spent much of the day dealing with the effects and working with water damage specialists. To give the specialists more time to work that evening, the office was closed early.

A little after 6 a.m. Pacific time the next day, as we woke up, the second of two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center.  But in the typical rush of getting ready to take our daughters to school and go to work, we had not turned on either the TV or the radio. At about 7:30 our phone rang. It was my boss, who told me “given the circumstances, we are telling everyone to stay home today.” Having no clue as to events of the moment, I could only guess at one reason: “You mean the water damage is that bad?”

After an incredulous pause, my boss asked, “You haven’t watched the news this morning, have you?” When he told me of the coordinated hijackings, the massive destruction, and the fear that more hijackers were still in the air, my first reaction was that it was a practical joke of some kind. Such a massive failure of our airport security system just didn’t seem possible.

But of course it was true, and we spent the rest of that horrifying day watching TV and scouring the internet.

Now, fast forward 10 years to last night. My wife and I still rarely watch TV. But we have mobile phones, a variety of social media accounts, and always-on computers in several rooms. As we’re finishing dinner at 7 p.m., one of our cell phones receives a text message from a friend. Someone who would know, he says, has texted his daughter at college that Obama is about to announce the death of bin Laden. Sure enough, an hour or so later, news services are saying the same thing, and then the President confirms it.

So now, it seems, no matter how indifferent I am to media, important news will find me, and not just when everyone else hears about it, but even before. If we hadn’t known someone who knew someone who knew a highly placed source, it might have taken a few minutes more, but soon enough one of us would have gone to check e-mail or Twitter and learned much the same news.

Once you could step out of the world at large without even thinking about it. Now, though, we have become so entwined with our social networks that it takes conscious and sustained effort to do so.

Let others debate the significance of social media and whether Twitter can accelerate revolutions. For me now it’s clear: social media are profoundly changing the world, and me along with it.