Friday, August 21, 2009

Why Amber Alerts Don’t Work in Our Information Society

You’d have to be living under a large rock not to know the age we live in is the information age.

We’re all “wired” and completely connected everywhere, to everyone, all the time. From cell phones, smart phones, BlackBerrys and other mobile devices ringing at all hours of the day, to always on email, online chat sites, remote access to work and home networks, there is no escaping the world in which we live.

Television and radio broadcast useful - and more often these days useless - information all day and all night as well. And if you miss your favor

Image via WikipediaSeveral mobile phones

ite broadcast, often you can catch it onDemand, or via a time shifting channel on digital cable or satellite television. Don’t have those, you may not be out of luck, with Podcasting becoming popular, you can download many shows directly to your mobile device.

With all these levels of technology, it is hard to believe that sometimes, no matter what the information, or how noble the intent of the messenger spreading that information, communications breakdown.

Take a recent case, where police in Canada’s largest province failed to issue an Amber Alert for a missing child. An Amber Alert is the new electronic buzz-term to indicate a missing or lost person, usually a child. Police issue these alerts to the media, and instantly all communications channels screech to a halt, screaming a description of who is missing, where they last were seen, who with, and contact information, in the hopes that someone seeing this will help law enforcement find the missing soul.

In big cities, major highway signs will flash the Amber Alert message, as do most major media outlets on their television, radio and Internet feeds. Print media will run the story in the next edition.

And the Internet - ah yes, the ultimate form of instant communication - becomes the equivalent of a broken telephone.

When I was a kid, I remember being amazed when I was given two Styrofoam cups tied together with string, and hearing the other person’s voice in my coffee cup.

The Internet, for all its awe and power in bringing us closer together is the high tech equivalent of those Styrofoam cups and string.

Every time an Amber Alert occurs, people everywhere take it upon themselves to share this information with their online social networks. People, completely unattached to the actual event, repeat the Amber Alert message to their social networks.

Amber AlertImage by bobster855 via Flickr

In theory, the more people who receive the message, the better the chances of a missing person being found.

But as with everything online, the more removed someone is from the actual events as they unfold, the more garbled the message, until very little of the original message exists.

It is all too easy to just copy and paste whatever someone sends you online, and re-send it to all your friends. But have you ever stopped to think whether the message you received was right, wrong, or even out of date?

I’m on a handful of online social networks, and I’ve seen the same Amber Alert repeated several times - and each time the wording of the message was different. In one instance, I received an online message about an Amber Alert, just as I heard on the radio that local law enforcement had cancelled the very same Amber Alert.

Maybe it is my old school journalistic thinking, a remnant left over from when I was a journalist many eons ago, but whenever someone sends me any sort of news bulletin, I always stop to think about the source of that information. Who the hell is this person, why are they sending me this, and how reliab

USPS AMBER Alert postage stamp.Image via Wikipedia

le a source for this particular information is the sender?

Needless to say, when I receive an online instant message from someone named “HotBlonde75432” I’m not going to take much notice of a news bulletin from this person, even if it really is an Amber Alert. This person may have directly cut and pasted the information right from a legitimate news outlet’s website, or typed exactly what they read, heard or saw in their local newspaper, radio station, or television broadcast.

But so long as the anything, anyone, anywhere, anytime Internet is just that - I will usually chuckle at the wanna-be journalist’s attempt of spreading the news, mumble something under my breath about “wondering what ever happened to the news business, don’t these people have better things to do with their lives,” and move on.

So much for spreading the message.

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