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Need vs. Noise

About two weeks ago, all schools in the area were put on shelter-in-place status due to a gunman.  He shot his ex-wife outside of a school.  The next day, he went to a nearby mall and shot three people in the parking lot.  A little while later, he shot another person in a grocery store parking lot.  The incidents kept getting closer to home.

My rational brain knew the kids weren’t in danger.  That it was more dangerous to go out while the gunman was on the loose than for all of us to stay in our respective buildings.  My irrational brain wanted to run out of the house, screaming until I reached them and could shield my body around them.

I stayed home and listened to the updates broadcast from the school while following a hashtag on Twitter.  I wanted to know whatever there was to know the moment there was to know it.

Have you ever followed a hashtag on Twitter during a frightening situation?  I’ve only done it once before, years ago.  That time, all the tweets were people either in the heart of the situation giving first-person accounts of what was going on, or people asking questions, sending words of support, or repeating to their followers what they learned from following the hashtag.

This time, it went like this: About 10% of the tweets were useful.  They either contained information I already knew or contained new information.  About 20% of the tweets were people saying they were praying for the victims.  A lovely sentiment, but one that clogged the hashtag and stopped people from getting information quickly.  30% of the tweets were people talking about their connection to said locations.  (“I once met my sister for lunch at that mall!”)  Again, unhelpful and since most of us have been to the mall, not remarkable.

20% of the tweets were offensive, stating that the gunman must be… fill in the blank.  Take every offensive thing you could say — from all angles — and add it to the hashtag.  Anti-something?  You could have found your kindred spirit in this hashtag.  10% of the tweets were hurtful, selfishly pointing out how the gunman’s actions impacted the Tweeter’s day.  The remaining 10% of the tweets had nothing to do with the situation at hand.  They slapped the hashtag onto their musings about wanting pie or how they hated all of the candidates for president.

When you’re in a stressful situation, you are doing anything, including trying to gather news, to wrest control from the events because you feel so impotent.  For two hours, I waded through everyone’s noise to get to that 10% of useful information.  Doing so meant I knew the gunman had been caught a few minutes before the shelter-in-place status was lifted.  It meant I also knew how everyone in my state felt about the mall and presidential candidates.  I walked away from the computer feeling as if I had been listening to static for two hours and it was finally quiet.


A day later, I was listening to an episode of Note to Self about the “Lonely Web” titled “What Happens to the Videos No One Watches?

The episode is about the blog posts and videos and tweets that few read, and the people who like to dive into random places on the Web to find these commentless blog posts and YouTube videos with 2 or 3 views.  When you find these places on the Internet, you find (as Manoush Zomorodi states), “real, unfiltered people lay themselves bare.”  They’re not performing.  There is nothing slick or polished about these videos.  No one has combed their hair and applied another coat of lipstick and checked that the angle is flattering.  This is about as real as it gets; just people recording life.

Joe Veix, the guest on the show, thinks deeply about how we find what we find on the Web.  Do we go for the low-hanging fruit; the stuff that has gone viral and therefore is showing up as a link in our feed because everyone is sharing it?  Do we go for the huge name bloggers knowing they must be good or why would they be so popular?  Or do we walk along this more personal route, listening to the people who have few people listening to them?

The “Lonely Web,” according to Veix, comes down to this:

How we access content.  Most of it is through social media, now, and too much content is getting posted every day …  [Stuff posted] is getting lost in the noise …  [The noise is] the product of the social media site’s themselves, which encourage us to post everything from our thoughts on an election or what we had for breakfast.  So it creates a tremendous amount of noise … The more information, the posts that they get from us, the more money they make.  So it’s in their best interest [to have us post a lot].

Yes, the noise, I thought as I drove.  That is exactly it.  My head was filled with noise while following that  hashtag as everyone felt the need to say something even though they had nothing to say.  They had no information to disseminate, so they wrote themselves into the story, pointing out that they had once been to the mall or were thinking about the victims.

But buried in that is judgment.  Who decides what is noise and what is need?  To me, all those tweets about mall visits were noise.  To the person writing it, who wanted to indirectly state that they felt scared by pointing out how close this hit to home, it was need.  Or maybe need is too intense a word.  Maybe it’s just want.  But they got something out of writing and posting those words, in the same way that I am getting something out of writing and posting these words.  Perhaps these words are noise to someone else on Internet.

The beauty of the Internet is that we are all allowed to post as much as we wish, whatever we wish.  There is no one stopping you from using or misusing a hashtag as long as you stay within the legal bounds of speech.  Anyone can start a blog, post their thoughts.  Anyone can make a video.  The Internet has unleashed and fed our collective creativity.  There are so many voices I have gotten to hear that would have otherwise never reached me if not for Web.

These words that we say collectively about the Internet or to ourselves when we’re trying to find things online — that there is too much content, too much noise — becomes a statement about worth.  No one ever says that there is too much love or too much happiness.  We only point out the surfeit when we’re judging: Some content is worthy of being here, but some content should have never been made.

It made me see those 90% of tweets in a whole new light.


1 a { 05.17.16 at 8:01 am }

The noise is why I can’t do Twitter. I like rabbit holes and things that no one has seen as much as I like the viral stuff. But I think my preference is to be away from the noise, because there, people don’t shout to be heard – they just speak and hope someone is listening.

2 Cristy { 05.17.16 at 8:13 am }

This is an interesting take on the brain dump people do. I see if often on listservs (some faculty just can’t be stopped with sharing long diatribes), which is why I avoid Twitter. But now you’ve got me thinking. Just as gut reactions to tragedies include anger, sadness and even guilt, maybe the brain dump is a way for people to process the event. And they need to share as part of that processing.

My question now is about the level of the noise. Did it increase when the 10% of tweets with updates about the situation were spaces more or following when they came more quickly? Did certain tweets result in more of a certain type of “noise?” Or was it all random?

3 Mel { 05.17.16 at 9:05 am }

You know, nothing changed because I think the vast majority of the people speaking were not actually following the hashtag and listening. The group was so divided into people just talking and people just listening, vs. a conversation of people who were scared and trying to process.

4 Jane { 05.17.16 at 11:59 am }

Here is a representation of need:
My first reaction to your post is that I just can’t believe that I didn’t hear about this event in the newspapers I read … The level and normality of gun violence these days is unbelievable.

And then I think – should I post this even though it’s not directly responding to the core of the blog post? Or should I be silent because it is some kind of noise?

5 Mel { 05.17.16 at 12:01 pm }

That is interesting. See, I would see your comment as part of a conversation. Whereas I got the sense that a lot of people posting on that hashtag weren’t reading the other posts in the hashtag. They were just talking. Does that make sense?

6 torthúil { 05.17.16 at 5:53 pm }

I have low tolerance for noise, which is why I’m not on Twitter, and have to limit what I follow on Facebook. Maybe people “need” to share their thoughts online, but I certainly don’t need to know them all. And I don’t need to share all of mine, either. But it can be surprisingly difficult and counter-intuitive to maintain that distance. After all, if so-and-so shared their ill-informed, half-formed thought or emotional opinion, maybe I should too! I’m just as worthy, after all! Oh wait, what good would sharing do? Even when it is an intelligent thought, would it be helpful in that particular situation? To me communication should have a purpose, and purpose is linked to context, and context is about community, not just the individual. What you are really describing in the crisis situation is a bunch of people talking to themselves, rather than to other people. They have a right to talk to themselves, but that probably wasn’t the best way to do it.

7 Kasey { 05.17.16 at 9:36 pm }

Like a few other comments. I quit Twitter because it was just too much. My feed had changed from primarily people I interacted with to primarily people I followed. And viral posts that show up in facebook often annoy me, and I’ve limited my time there too.
I really liked that podcast, thinking about the things no one sees or reads. I mostly think my blog is in that category and I am ok with that.
There have been a few times I’ve followed a hashtag for updates, and I mostly found it useful, but I am also finding that in most cases I’m ok now if I don’t have the news the moment it happens.
I’ve been in a middle school the last two days and yesterday they had a code red lockdown. I was with a kid in the computer lab, and didn’t know what to do. I checked and saw the door didn’t lock, then we just sat there. The principal found us and said we needed to go across the hall to a room that locked. He also let me know that it was a drill – and I didn’t realize until that moment how unsure I was about what was going on. I hated in that moment the complete inability to have any information noise or not.
I’m glad your family was all safe.

8 Mali { 05.18.16 at 5:12 am }

I was really interested in what you said about the big blogs. I have almost always been disappointed in the superficial nature of posts on big name blogs. Much hype about the post with big headlines and promises, but little to no real information or insight. To me, that’s just noise. I am looking for more. Maybe that’s why I’m not on Twitter.

9 Justine { 05.18.16 at 10:12 am }

I think my problem with Twitter is that you’re forced to read the noise if you’re looking for the other stuff (and I do think it’s noise if it’s making it harder to find other relevant information. I support people’s right to be heard, and weigh in, and feel like they’re part of what’s happening, but not at the expense of safety. Why not use another hashtag, related but with a word like “concerned”? or “support”?). With blogs, you can opt into what you read; it’s not necessarily going to show up on your feed if you don’t want it to.

Maybe I’m reacting that way because I’m feeling grumpy today, but I find that the times I do use Twitter, I do it for relevant immediate information, in conference sessions where they’re supporting conversation around the presentation, or as I’m watching a protest or other situation unfold, or when I need information that pertains to my safety or the safety of other people.

10 loribeth { 05.24.16 at 7:52 pm }

I’m not on Twitter, and I’m not sure I’d turn to it as a primary news source. But I have followed breaking news stories on CNN and on the CBC News Network (the Canadian equivalent), and there tends to be a lot of “noise” there too — talking heads speculating and repeating the same stuff over & over while they wait for new developments.

I think, too, we have to approach even these “trusted” news sources with a grain of salt when it comes to breaking news, because so often they get the story wrong, initially — and sometimes the misinformation that gets broadcast sticks around forever. Dave Cullen’s excellent book on Columbine demonstrated this in spades, and I’ve seen it play out in other situations since then.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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