I’ve been involved in the social media revolution for years now, having started “citizen media” brands like Bakotopia that depend completely on social networking and user-contributed content, and various community tools in the late 1990s at AOL that opened media participation up to the average Joe. But it wasn’t until a wave of tornadoes went through my hometown of Denver this week that I realized just how far the revolution has come.

A confluence of inexpensive, accessible consumer technology, and microblogging sites like Twitter and Facebook, has lowered the barriers of entry so far to make me think we’re witnessing the birth of a completely new — and arguably better — breaking news system that involves everyone.

Just look at the experience of Lauren, my 6-year-old daughter, with her $68 Fisher-Price digital camera. On Tuesday, it vaulted us both into the local media spotlight within minutes after she captured footage of a funnel cloud forming over our house.

I uploaded everything to Flickr and Vimeo and posted links in Twitter. Minutes later, CBS4Denver</a>, the local CBS News affiliate, was broadcasting the footage on the air and <a href="http://www.cbs4denver.com/video/?id=58153kcnc.dayport.com”>interviewing me live over the phone.

That night, CBS came to our house to do a segment about my daughter and how she shot the photo on her Fisher-Price camera. Here’s that segment, followed by my video footage.


What’s most interesting to me is how naturally all of this happened, and how quickly a couple of tweets were picked up and broadcast all over the state. And it wasn’t just by CBSThe Denver Post, Daily Camera and Colorado Daily also pointed to it from their websites.

How It All Happened

Rewind to last Sunday, when five tornadoes went through the Denver area, with one overturning a car and injuring a man taking pictures. Since then, everyone here has been on edge whenever strange clouds form. That day, I bookmarked a local Twitter search for the term Tornado and began monitoring it whenever I heard reports of strange weather.

When my daughter came into my home office on Tuesday saying there was a scary looking cloud outside, I checked the NOAA radar for Denver and didn’t see anything. I checked Twitter search and saw nothing as well. So we marched upstairs to take a look ourselves.

And that’s when we saw a strange, sideways, shoelace-like cloud that appeared to be growing:

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I immediately grabbed my camera and starting taking pictures. It was at this time that I remember hearing Lauren say, “I’m gonna get my camera too!” It was ultimately her photo above that ended up on TV news, also spreading through Twitter via a few retweets that resulted in 400 clicks in just a few hours (according to bit.ly).

Here are the most popular Tweets that started the ball rolling:

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I should add that I also addressed some tweets to the attention of cbs4denver</a>, which made it easier for them to find, as well as <a href="http://twitter.com/cbs4denver">denverpost. I subscribe to both of their feeds and had noticed them asking people to tweet tornado news on Sunday. This was an incredibly smart move by both organizations, as it immediately extended their newsroom to include everyone on the ground. The Denver Post, followed by the Daily Camera and Colorado Daily, ended up embedding my video on their home pages. Vimeo reports that the video has been played 729 times since then, with 400 views on the first day.

How Breaking News Has Changed

This personal experience has really changed my view of breaking news, and opened my eyes to the revolution in news reporting that microblogging and real-time search are making possible. A year ago, I was skeptical of Twitter, thinking it was just another Web 2.0 darling that would quickly lose its luster. Now I’m starting to sense that Twitter, microblogging and real-time search are a new medium in their own right, distinct from being simply part of “the Internet.” They’re a new chapter in the digital media revolution.

This anecdote also shows how quickly breaking news spreads through Twitter, which, as a medium, is scooping not only local news organizations but also the National Weather Service, which did not declare a tornado warning in Broomfield until 30 minutes after we saw a funnel cloud forming.

This was even more obvious when the CBS 4 news crew arrived, fresh from chasing the storm all the way to Greeley, Colo., and still getting no direct tornado footage. Instead, they spent the afternoon visiting people who had already taken and broadcast their own footage online. There was once a time when a news station provided the main lens on a locality and thus the eye of common experience. Now, the news station’s role is shifting to be more of a spotlight on “everycam.” As Clay Shirky said in his book by the same name, here comes everybody!

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