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The times, they are a-changin’: Thoughts on last week’s TMI conference

Published: September 18, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

Yale Spector ‘11 sits casually in the Village B2 lounge with the three of us. We are surrounding a table atop which perch our four glossy, multicolored Macbooks.

“So how are we going to do this?” he states, not so much a question as a call to our attention. We briefly tear our eyes away from the illuminated screens. Jamie Fleishman ’11 taps a few keys on his keyboard. My cell phone rings.

“We are going to need a Twitter. And a blog, obviously. But what about a live stream? Could we get some camcorders set up? I could easily upload a few clips to YouTube and embed them later.” Such questions are posed and a general course of action is agreed upon. We’ve decided that Yale will be in charge of tweeting while Jamie and I will be blogging, and it goes without say that we’ll all be linking live via Facebook, primarily through status updates.

These were the kind of tasks I partook in over the span of about 40 hours, from the evening of September 9th until the morning of the 11th, as part of the TMI Conference’s “student verdict”—an experiment using internet media to report and determine pros and cons between new and traditional journalism. The students participating, myself included, signed up to do what we’ve been doing so enthusiastically for over a decade now—fiddling around on the web, or “flexing our internet muscles” as Yale so aptly proclaimed.

But it’s one thing to goof around on Facebook between (and during) classes, or web-surf to pass time, or troll up some forums to get a laugh or two. It’s another entirely to use the internet to make a serious point about the power it holds over journalism, and the major changes continuing to take place in the world of communication.

As I write this, I am checking my friends’ Facebook statuses to scrape up any shred of information I can about the potential hostage situation going on in my neighborhood back home in Brooklyn. I read about an occurrence on Facebook just a few hours ago, and now a local news blog has picked it up, saying, “posters to a local forum say the Starbucks is being held up by a man with a machine gun. The commenter later said he heard from someone on the scene that it had to do with a domestic dispute in the residence above the Starbucks.”

This is the first time I’ve ever seen a forum post cited in a news story.

As the TMI Conference demonstrated, we are living in a hyper-connected age. News broadcasts are instantaneous, and commentary is all-inclusive, worldwide. Everyone is involved. Everyone is wired, tapping away furiously at their respective keyboards, iPhones, and Blackberries. It goes without saying that social norms are being adjusted accordingly. Some people choose to text instead of call. Others choose to dismiss human interaction altogether, save from behind the anonymity of a screen name.

During the conference, Yale, Jamie, and I experienced loosely what today’s journalists experience when covering an event. We had at it, sitting at our designated “press” table, in complete silence except for our unanimous and violent key-tapping, using three different though simultaneous means of communication (email, Google chat, and silly facial expressions). We had something like an assembly line of information going as I transcribed into a Google doc, Jamie edited and blogged it, and Yale tweeted. By the end of the whole thing I was in a state of computer-vertigo.

It was pretty invigorating, though, the energy of it all—the intensity, the speed, the general neuroticism of the event between the typing and the talking and the tweeting and all that madness. At one point, the three of us were chatting in Google chat while a speaker was saying something disagreeable. Yale was typing to me, ragging on the argument being posed while I was looking him dead in the eye. I thought to myself, this is probably not unlike how telepathy feels. Cool.

Jamie brought up a funny point: if someone from 10 years ago could travel through time and attend that day’s conference, that person would have absolutely no idea what the hell was being said. Twitter? Blogs? YouTube? Facebook? Whaa? It’s crazy to think that these terms that are such an integral part of our daily conversations only came into being within the past decade—Twitter, only 3 years ago.

It’s a funny and exciting and overwhelming thing. It’s also a bit frightening if you’ve spent your entire life living in a print world to wake up one morning and see newspapers collapsing around you left and right. But that’s not to say there’s no hope for the future—quite the contrary, there’s more hope than ever. Journalism isn’t being destroyed; it’s being rebuilt from the ground up, with a state-of-the-art foundation to support it. We just have to work the kinks out before it takes off.

It’s really just mind-boggling to think of the whole thing—today, for instance, I was reading a 19th-century novel and read a sentence that mentioned a bird that was twittering. For a second, I thought I had read an anachronism.