How the Boston Marathon tragedy revealed the best side of social media

Within seconds after a bomb detonated during the Boston Marathon this morning, pictures, video and news of the horrific event were pulsing over social networks. And they weren't exaggerations or FUD — these reports from people on the ground were the way most of us learned the truth.

On Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other social networks this morning, we discovered that bombs went off on the Boston Marathon route, killing two and injuring dozens more. More bombs may be in the JFK libraries (experts are calling the fire there unrelated). Many people were asking whether the attack was caused by terrorists, but few leapt to conclusions. Most people just wanted more information before passing judgment or succumbing to rumor.

Photo by Dan Roan

One of the most cherished beliefs of news media hounds is that the slide into social media news will leave us mired in rumors, bad information, and propaganda. But today's ongoing tragedy in Boston has revealed that the future of news may not be as dark as pundits imagined. Information flowed quickly out of Boston, coupled occasionally with rumors but more often with good advice. From Twitter:

This was retweeted over a hundred times.

The police reached out to citizens for information, too:

Acting like reporters, ordinary citizens gathered information to share. Again, from Twitter:

The memes that quickly emerged from the event involved the sharing of photos and questions about how to reach loved ones when cell coverage was down in large parts of the Boston Area. Google immediately set up a "person finder" system for posting and finding information about specific people.

While major news outlets covered the casualties, and law enforcement's efforts to locate more bombs, citizens (such as this user on Reddit) reached out to each other with the best factual information they could find. Some wanted reassurance. Others wanted to be sure we understood this event in a global context:

This is not a situation where social media news has led to mob sentiments taking over. People have been fact checking in real time, and trying to figure out the truth of the situation. There is room for outpourings of emotion, and room for analysis.

I don't mean to gloss over the problems. There have been vicious, incorrect memes, trollish jokes, and people being shamed for wanting to focus on other topics in order to feel better. But the overwhelming reaction to this terrifying event — which still isn't over — has made the future of news seem a lot less terrifying than it did even a few weeks ago. Bloggers have been correcting misinformation about the bombers, and Boston locals are trying to figure out ways to house the runners who can't get back to their hotels tonight:

Knowing more about what's happening to our neighbors is inspiring compassion, rather than craziness. If there's any kernel of hope that comes out of today's events, it should be for the future of citizen-driven news. Our social media networks may be maturing into trusted sources.