Should #SFRiot have been “real” news?

All fun and games until the riot police show up

If you don’t live in San Francisco you probably wouldn’t know that things got pretty out of control in parts of the city after the Giants won the World Series. I was at 22nd and Mission standing beside a smoldering mattress when the riot police showed up, so I got to see some of this first hand.

Why wouldn’t you know this? Well, mostly because it wasn’t reported anywhere – even in the local “traditional media”. The Chronicle’s (very minimal) coverage calls the scene on Mission an “old fashioned street party”. However, if you follow any San Francisco users on Twitter, you would have quickly seen all sorts of first hand accounts and pictures of the mayhem. As usual on Twitter, these started to converge around the #SFRiot hashtag.

And, as is also usual on Twitter, this rapidly became a conversation about how social tools and citizen journalism have eclipsed traditional media as a means of reporting what’s really happening since these old media dinosaurs can’t or won’t do the job. But is that really true? Was the #SFRiot an overblown bit of real-time naval gazing by nervous San Francisco tech kids or was it legitimate news that should have been covered by more mainstream media?

Let’s take a look at the conversation that happened around #SFRiot by the numbers. Using the TweetReach Tracker, we started tracking the hashtag around 11pm PDT last night – not long after it appeared. After tracking through this morning, here’s what we found:

  • Peak activity was from 11pm to 1am with about 5,900 tweets (out of 7,920 total) during those hours
  • 45% of those tweets were retweets
  • 3,949 users generated those 7,920 tweets
  • The most exposure was generated by none other than Vinod Khosla who retweeted some of the more amusing tweets followed by Twitter developer John Kalucki
  • There are essentially no tweets from any news organizations
Tracker for #SFRiot

You can download the Tracker report (pdf) to see this for yourself.

As you can see from the numbers it appears there was a pretty significant echo effect. To a Twitter user following other Twitter users in San Francisco it might have seemed like the apocalypse but most of the traffic was generated by a relatively small number of people. A quick review of the tweets also shows that much of the chatter was snarky jokes, commentary and notes about what was happening on the police scanner. There were relatively few actual eyewitness accounts.

So what does this all mean? My interpretation is that while Twitter is a powerful way to keep up with real-time developments, especially those of local interest, we need to be aware that it doesn’t provide any context. In that environment it’s very easy for relatively minor things to get blown way out of proportion. That said, it was pretty scary watching people throw bottles at a line of riot police marching down Mission Street.

What do you think? Should the mainstream media have covered this? Or did Twitter just provide a platform to blow things out of proportion?