Give Twitter, Google Credit for Swine Flu Flop... But - InformationWeek

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Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
5/8/2009
05:54 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
Commentary
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Give Twitter, Google Credit for Swine Flu Flop... But

It's pretty clear that the swine flu had a limited run in the United States in large part thanks to the swift and accurate dissemination of information.

It's pretty clear that the swine flu had a limited run in the United States in large part thanks to the swift and accurate dissemination of information.Far from seeing the recent swine flu scare as an over-reaction fueled by pulse-quickening Google maps and Tweets, public health officials can tip their caps to people making Google iMaps and Tweeting to help raise awareness and prevent the spread of this disease.

John Brownstein, a physician at Children's Hospital in Boston who mashed up Twitter with his HealthMap swine flu tracking service, noted last week that "people are using our service for informational purposes."

There are those, like Chuck Raasch, who are taking away the wrong lesson:

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and similar sites can be powerful connectors for the good, but they can also unleash weapons of mass misinformation. Public relations professionals say government and business communications plans carefully constructed during the avian flu threat in 2005-2006 were obsolete when this latest pandemic threat arrived.

The key here is that existing communications plans were obsolete. In hindsight, it might be easy to say that everyone over-reacted, but the disease could easily have spread and gone unnoticed in certain areas were it not for the digital social media, leading to death rates seen in Mexico -- where Tweeting was largely absent until it was too late.

And unlike curmudgeons like John Dvorak, I think the absence of catastrophe (like the Y2K bug) is a testament to the hard work and the timely existence of certain technologies -- not a let-down. The again, I don't rubberneck at highway accidents either, and I don't love train wrecks.

That said, we need to make sure that Twitter, and all those other mobile technologies that allow us to work more productively from more places than ever, don't actually get us in worse trouble than we already are. The incessant demands from bosses to give quick answers and the speed with which computers can make investment decisions -- despite circuit-breakers put into effect to stop them -- can bring down an entire economy or simply ruin a business deal.

Michael Granville, a New York architect I've called friend for over 25 years, told me he's worried that we're in danger of sacrificing our ability to think things through on the altar of doing things fast -- and that electronic communication technologies facilitate this process, supplanting other, more deliberative modes of work. He wrote in an email, "you can't build a building shooting emails back and forth between BlackBerries. At some point, time needs to be spent contemplating how to do the task, testing the alternatives on paper (or on screen), etc. But the endless blur of electronic stimuli is crowding out this process. Our facility to respond quickly becomes an impediment to responding carefully and well."

Maybe our challenge, then, is to put these technologies to the best possible use, while resisting the temptation to respond without thinking, simply because we can.

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