About 6 a.m. Monday, Steve Burns, a freelance journalist near Atlanta, sent out a note on Twitter:
“WSB: Boil water advisory in Douglas County. #atlfloods”
An hour later, Atlanta blogger Grayson Hurst Daughters tweeted from her @spaceyg account:
“Atlanta commuters: use the hashtag #atlflood for Atlanta flood condition notices.”
She followed up quickly with a note to a local TV outlet:
“@11AliveNews, please consider using the hashtag #atlflood in your Tweets! That way all the notices can be indexed/RSS’d. Tx!”
The tag set the tone for an organized, findable stream of aggregated content that helped Atlantans and their friends stay informed as the rain kept falling, killing at least 6 people, swamping interstates and causing major delays at the airport. The Georgia governor declared a state of emergency in 17 counties.
We’ve all read posts about how Twitter provides immediate coverage of earthquakes or bloody election fallout. But this moment showed how a social media tool enabled aggregation of all local news coverage through one search, quickly, in a large city, for breaking news.
Individuals shared links to stories from the established local news outlets quickly throughout the day. And a picture on Twitpic of flooding on Atlanta’s downtown connector received more than 60,000 views in about 10 hours.
Considering it a victory for untrained “citizen journalism” might be a bit misleading. Burns has newspaper experience from California, Georgia and Florida, and Daughters is a writer and corporate communication professional who worked for ABC News for six years. Also heavily involved was Tessa Horehled, a strategic marketer who advises companies about social media plans. Tweeting at @driveafastercar, she braved the rain with a video camera numerous times throughout the day from her neighborhood, and posted pictures late into the evening as a creek approached her front door.
She also created the tag #atlgas, used extensively during a gas shortage in the fall of 2008 in the Atlanta area. That tag was featured in a TED presentation by Twitter founder Evan Williams.
Certainly many other people were posting on Twitter, and local media outlets covered the story well. Ajc.com linked to a Twitter search of the tag. But because individuals used the tag while pointing to established media stories as well as posting their own observations, the tag itself served as a way of aggregating all media into one search.
But yes, there’s a drawback, in counting on the crowd to control the content of a tag for aggregation: As soon as the hashtag hit the Top 10 trending terms on Twitter, opportunistic usurpers crowded the stream and made it much less valuable. That gaming of the system shows that a tag is most useful when it’s NOT in the top 10 trending list.
About 8 p.m., one person on Twitter from Cambridge expressed frustration to Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media,” that no national media outlets were covering the story, and he repeated the tweet. About 9 p.m., the L.A. Times sent out a tweet pointing to its story, with a dateline “Reporting from Atlanta.”
But throughout the day, the best place for aggregated coverage from both established local media and from individuals came from searching Twitter for the #atlflood tag.
Until it hit the “trending” list.