Social Media as High-Tech CB Radio

From winter storms to WikiLeaks tsunamis, we're seeing the power (and limits) of social-media sharing

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Photo-Illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME

A common knock against social networks like Twitter is that they are this century's version of CB radio. To which my response is, This is an insult? CB radio was awesome! It gave truckers a voice and news about where Smokey was hiding. It gave the rest of us Convoy and BJ and the Bear. What was not to like?

I thought about this over Christmas week while I was at my mother's house in Michigan looking online for news of the East Coast blizzard — in particular, whether my neighborhood in Brooklyn was well plowed enough for my family to drive home in one of the least winter-ready automobiles ever manufactured.

As a kid in the '70s, I would sit in my bedroom with a walkie-talkie — which let you pick up conversations on citizens band Channel 14 — and listen to truckers passing by, headed for who knows where. Now here I was, back at home, hunched over a Twitter feed and scanning for road reports from 600 miles (965 km) away on a tablet computer. Apple calls the device I held in my hand an iPad, but for practical purposes, it's a high-tech CB radio. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

For critics of Twitter et al., the CB comparison is meant to diminish social media as a fad with little actual value. But the analogy is unfair — to CB radio. Sure, for most polyester-clad hobbyists with CBs in their living rooms, the radios were essentially electronic pet rocks. But for truckers in the pre-GPS, pre-cell-phone era, CB was very useful: it was an ad hoc micro-news network. Drivers on a stretch of highway could share word about gas availability during the energy crisis or speed traps in the days of the 55 m.p.h. (about 90 km/h) limit. No one made them do it; there was no payoff except karma and the feeling of connectedness on a lonely job. And as each traveler went his or her separate way, this news network would dissolve and new ones would form along another stretch of road.

Today social media put us all on the same road. Ever since people started going online, media analysts have predicted that we would enter the era of the Daily Me: we'd each receive news hypercustomized to our tastes and interests. And to some extent, that's true. If you want to learn everything there is to know about a certain sports team or Kardashian family member, you can set up a Google alert.

But when it comes to true micro-news, you have to grow your own. I couldn't expect local news outlets to send a reporter to every block I'd have to drive through on the way home. But within hours of the blizzard, someone had made an interactive map of Brooklyn with crowdsourced info on which streets were and weren't plowed; a Twitter search of my neighborhood's name brought real-time block-by-block updates, complete with photos.

This is what goes on every day on Twitter, Flickr and other social-media sites dealing with trivial events and far more serious disasters. People create miniature communities of geography and interest, sharing links to news from professional outlets and also contributing their own reports — effectively creating ephemeral, leaderless news networks. (These networks even have names, using conventions like Twitter's subject hashtags, such as #haitiearthquake or #iranprotest.)

Each volunteer fills in a tiny pixel of a big picture, with the most ancient and elemental units of news: Where are you? How are you? What can you see, and what do you hear?

The ability to share information is changing our lives in tiny ways (see your Facebook news feed) and huge ones — witness the WikiLeaks phenomenon, which promises to transform journalism, business and government by opening up online avenues for whistle-blowers.

Information has its limits, however. We're becoming a society of constant documenters, but recording problems is not always enough to fix them. With every person his or her own video crew, it's almost unimaginable that there could be a disaster (or a celebrity gaffe) without someone to capture it. The risk is that we come to think that snapping a picture and hitting "publish" is a substitute for grabbing a shovel and helping out. As a driver who spent a night stuck in his snowplow in Brooklyn muttered to a New York Times reporter, "I'd like to meet the man who invented the cell-phone camera."

At best, though, virtual community and temporary networks can become a starting point for actual community and tangible action: joining a volunteer crew, looking in on a neighbor, writing a check. And sometimes the urge to pass on information for no personal gain is worth enough in itself. (To an inept city driver, say, who avoided getting stranded in the snow.) Maybe individual social-media outlets of today will someday go the way of CB radio. But let's hope that the impulse to witness, to inform — in the best sense of the word, to share — will keep on truckin'.