Twenty-four hours before the first of two bombs exploded on Boston’s Boylston Street on April 15, I was walking that very street, impressed with the organized way the city was preparing for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon.
As I walked, I was often passed by thinly clad runners doing last-minute preps for the next day’s big road race. More than 21,000 runners take part in this mother of all marathons, and it is a sight to behold.
A world of difference
What a difference a week made. Instead of great memories of individual races well-run, we had memories of chaos for what happened at the finish line, and the sorrow that comes from grieving three lives lost at more than 170 wounded; many severely.
As Monday morphed into Tuesday and beyond, my attention shifted not only to the hunt to find the bombers, but to the roles that communication technology and the social media played in those manhunts.
It began occurring to me last Monday night that this was probably the most photographed crime in history, and that the chances of the culprits being identified early were much greater than the chances they would not be identified at all.
You’re on Candid Camera
Boston is one of America’s many cities that relies a lot on street and store surveillance cameras to record anything that might later prove to need recording.
Ironically, The Boston Globe reported on the rise in the use of street cameras back in August of 2007. Reporter Charlie Savage wrote:
“The Department of Homeland Security is funneling millions of dollars to local governments nationwide for purchasing high-tech video camera networks, accelerating the rise of a ‘surveillance society’ … Since 2003, the department has handed out some $23 billion in federal grants to local governments for equipment and training to help combat terrorism. ”
Privacy not a concern here
While many of us, at times, worry about the threat these surveillance cameras pose to our individual privacy, this was not one of those weeks in Boston. We wanted police and FBI to see as many people as possible and, in reviewing those images, to find the guys that did this crime.
Of course, that is exactly what happened.
But it wasn’t just the street cameras, or even the camera from Lord & Taylor on Boylston Street, that did the job. These cameras were joined by the hundreds of cell phone cameras from everyday citizens who had gathered — they thought — to watch the remainder of the marathoners cross the finish line.
When those camera images were added to the surveillance camera results, the world saw who the two brothers were who ignited these bombs. Call if citizen journalism at its best.
Interviewed later, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, “The use of cameras was invaluable; both surveillance and smart phone cameras.”
Social media exposure
But the images still needed to be circulated to all of us. Television was the first to do that, but many young people don’t watch TV these days. So it was the images uploaded to the social media of Facebook and Twitter that helped complete the job and let everyone see the faces of terror in Boston.
It is no secret that young people get their news from places like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and the home pages of AOL and Yahoo. So getting the images out on the Web in sites like these helped in many ways to get maximum interaction from people who knew either of the two brothers, or perhaps both.
Not only did people start calling in tips to police, but some netziens became amateur sleuths in circulating, deciphering, and analyzing photos and factoids to piece together theories of the crime and where the suspects might be hiding.
Users become sleuths
One site in which Web users became investgators was Reddit.com. One sub-group that was formed almost immediately was classified under “Find the Bomber” On this home page, more than 60,000 users discussed different photos of the crime scene and exchanged ideas about where the suspects might be.
This is a classic example of what I wrote about several weeks ago in this blog when discussing crowd sourcing. Although, in this case, the crowd was not so much used as story sources, but as potential sources of information that might be helpful to police.
One expert noted this week, “Everyone became a soldier armed with information.”
And former Boston and New York Police Commissioner simply stated it this way, in an interview Saturday night with CBS’ 48 Hours:
“Every step of the way, technology played a part in bringing these two men to justice. Every step of the way.”