Tweet by tweet, we’re making history

In the past five years or so, tech innovators and laggards alike have been able to go to Twitter for the latest news before seeing it anywhere else. Taking into account excusable, and not-so-excusable fallacies, we take the bad with good, choose who to listen to and piece together our own story as it develops. Our views, likes, shares and retweets gauge the impact of major historical events, and the impact of the May 20 tornado in Moore, Okla. was massive.

Soon after the horrific EF5 tornado, journalist/essayist Lee Sandlin put into perspective the natural disaster that resulted in what reporters and weathermen alike were calling “the worst tornado damage in the history of the world.”

If a disaster happens and no one is around to tweet it, do we remember it? Do we even know about it?

In his column for USA Today, Sandlin compares the Moore tornado to a twister in 1805 that traveled from Missouri to Southern Illinois, leaving a trail of destruction two miles wide across three states. Over 100 years later it seemed that the same storm dropped from the sky, tracing over almost exactly the same path. Moving at 70 miles per hour and traveling over 200 miles, this was infamously dubbed the “Tri-State Tornado.” The tornado lasted a devastating three and a half hours, as opposed to the one in Moore, Okla. which lasted 40 minutes.

The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 killed about 700 people—that’s a major disaster in any century. Sandlin said, “Witnesses didn’t see a classic funnel cloud. Instead they described it as a wall of fog that moved across the landscape … destroying everything it touched.”

This is not to belittle the devastation of the Moore tornado, but in all of the talk about the tornado’s aftermath being the worst in the world, we lacked perspective. We have trouble measuring our tragedies up against those BI (Before Internet). So you have to wonder: If a disaster happens and no one is around to tweet it, do we remember it? Do we even know about it?

Through the lens of social media, major events that were once considered regional turn national, global, even. Online petitions have taken the place of door-to-door efforts. Lawn signs and bumper stickers are being replaced by a temporary change of profile pic. And actually, I don’t think these conceptual skeumorphs are less effective given the amount of time we spend online. They’re well-intentioned and if nothing else, gain attention for things people care about. But we all care about so many things, it’s difficult deciding where to dole out one’s thought, much less, real empathy. How are we supposed to really feel it all?

The number of views that, say, a cat riding a vacuum gets, carry the same weight as the number of views on a story covering the riots in Turkey, rather than by the real-world impact that these events generate. There’s no way to measure how lives are changed by stories online, and I wonder how this will effect the history we’re building.