Social media, H1N1, and digital literacy

The swine flu pandemic has played out across Web 2.0 and the rest of the information ecosystem, with implications for teaching, learning, and research.

At one level, people have been using various forms of social media to find, share, and discuss information about the H1N1 disease.  An emergency information Twitter feed was set up by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The World Health Organization has a Twitter feed as well.  In addition, people have been Twittering about the disease in increasing amounts.   You can find “tweets” on this topic by searching Twitter using these tags (known as “hashtags”): Swine Flu, #swineflu, or H1N1.  You can also signal your Twitter interest in H1N1 by adding one of these hashtags to your own tweets.  The Mashable blog has a post listing other H1N1-related Twitter feeds of interest, as does C|Net.  Tweetmeme offers an on-the-fly aggregation of pandemic tweets.

RSS feeds are produced and followed, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel advisory feed, or this one from the World Health Organization (WHO), consisting of news updates from their information-gathering process:

A Pittsburgh-area researcher has created a Google Maps map of infections:

Other maps have appeared, such as one from HealthMap.  Google Maps Mania has tracked disease maps in several blog posts (first, second).  Google itself is experimenting with applying its Flu Trends data analysis project to the H1N1 outbreak in Mexico:

Blogging about the disease has grown as well.  One leading blog tracking site identifies more than 8,000 posts about H1N1, with the majority written in languages other than English.  Another source, Google Blogsearch, breaks down blog posts into subcategories (swine flu, American responses, discussions of media coverage); one graph of which we reproduce here:

President Obama’s public statement about H1N1 appeared via the White House blog.  Other bloggers are referencing their earlier posts about pandemics, such as information warfare analyst John Robb (working one’s blog archives is a very useful practice for bloggers).

Wikis are also being used to track and respond to H1N1.  Wikipedia has several entries, including one on the pandemic, and one on the disease itself.  The Wikia group quickly produced a Flu Wiki.  Wikinews has extensive, user-generated coverage.

News aggregators are useful and easy to use tools.  For example, Google News and Yahoo! News are searchable, and also present leading stories.

Social networking sites are seeing a great deal of H1N1-related traffic.  At least one Facebook group has appeared.

Social images: Web 2.0 photo service Picasa (from Google) lists 42 images tagged “H1N1.” Meanwhile Flickr lists 442 results on a search for “H1N2,” and 1862 for “swine flu.” Those images represent a wide variety of content, from captures of other media source to humor, images of local responses to politics.  For example,

(image from Eneas, who also has a collection of Mexico City pandemic photos)

Social bookmarking has proceeded rapidly, with users tagging Web resources in great numbers, either under “H1N1” (1136 results, as of this blog posting) or “swine flu” (6035 results).

Podcasts on H1N1 have already appeared, even given the greater production time required for audio, as compared with text.  The CDC has started releasing has identified several podcasts so far, while Odeo lists a dozen.

Web video: the CDC has six video clips so far in its “CDCStreamingHealth” YouTube channel.  A search for “H1N1″ on YouTube yields more than 1,500 results as of this blog post.

Timelines: at least one project aggregates stories about the disease, presenting them chronologically, in order to show the pandemic over time.

At another level, “Web 1.0” publications are quite valuable.  These are flat Web pages with somewhat static content, as opposed to Web 2.0 media.  The CDC offers this one-sheet guide to caring for someone afflicted with the disease, along with this one Web page (frequently updated) as a single source of information.  CDC also released a Web video clip, consisting of statements by CDC experts, partly in response to email queries from concerned citizens.  WebMD maintains a good, old-fashioned FAQ about the pandemic.

In addition, we are seeing the emergence of meta-commentary on how various information sources and media respond to H1N1.  First, criticism has appeared, arguing that new media have exaggerated the disease’s real impact, or even exacerbated fears into panic.  Twitter has been the leading target of such critiques, being charged with helping spread misinformation.  For example, from the popular Web comic XKCD:

Evgeny Morozov argues that in this case Twitter also makes finding information more difficult: “Twitter seems to have introduced too much noise into the process.”

Traditional media are not immune to such charges, as this Washington Post article describes.

“Of course we’re doing too much to scare people,” said Mark Feldstein, a former correspondent for NBC, ABC and CNN who teaches journalism at George Washington University. “Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn’t 24 hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they’ll tune in more.”

Second, observers are already considering the implications of this entire process for information architecture, design, and politics.  For instance, one African blog observes a meta-pattern in action:

* First, we see an inordinate amount of traffic on the social networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc).
* Second, the aggregators step in to gather the data into one place.
* Third, we see visualizations (maps and graphs).

How does this emerging picture map onto teaching, learning, and research?

  • The news and information ecosystem has changed, which means information literacy and media literacy practices need to keep up.  We need to keep abreast of these emergent practices.  How do we best do this in academia?
  • At a curricular level, this topic could be teachable in numerous classroom settings: journalism, communication, media studies, network analysis, sociology.  In one sense, each item this blog post has noted could be considered a learning object.
  • At a practical level, if campuses enter quarantine, should we consider expanding our online teaching and learning practices?  Britt Watwood explores this question.
  • At a support level, what does the relative productivity of each of these resources tell us about services and platforms to explore or use?  For example, does the greater number of photos in Flickr over Picasa suggest we turn to the former for social images?  Does the larger amount of YouTube videos against podcasts impel us towards Web video over audio?
  • Note that all of the resources linked from this post are open and publicly available.  What are we missing that isn’t presented this way?  How are we currently teaching the mix of open and “siloed” resources?
  • At a meta-level, consider the diversity of sources covered in this blog post.  Many strata of information are layered together: Web 2.0, Web 1.0, broadcast media, governments and NGOs.  There is no single source, no one platform to stick with.  It’s a cliche to remark upon the complexity of digital media, but worth restating, especially in very grounded, real-world cases, such as this one.
  • New tools may emerge to better manage and appreciate these information flows.  We could do well to keep abreast of such projects, and perhaps participate in developing some. As the Ushahidi blog suggests,
  • I do hope to see in the future is that the protocols, tools and processes for gathering, making sense of, and then disseminating crisis information becomes more open and standardized. There’s no reason that Ushahidi shouldn’t plug and play well with Evolve, which then feeds into Threatwatch on Twitter and is all part of a mapping and visualization scheme by larger publishers.
    It would be very interesting to get some of the minds behind Twitter, Ushahidi, InSTEDD, Facebook, Wikia, Google and others together to better figure out how we can each continue to build independently, yet at the same time work towards a better ecosystem for emergency information.

Have we missed any resources?  What do you think of this issue?  Please comment!

(via Mashable, BoingBoing, C|Net, Google Public Policy Blog, Bruce Sterling, Larry Magid, Vicky Stawarski)

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Posted on May 1, 2009 at 10:55 am by Bryan Alexander · Permalink
In: Best Practices, Communications, GIS, Information Literacy, Learning Objects, Podcasting · Tagged with: ,

3 Responses

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  1. Written by David Brake
    on May 2, 2009 at 5:41 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I was struck by the publicity given to the Google Map now at, even in the “mainstream” press. Not that there was anything necessarily wrong with the map but it is compiled from “official sources, news reports and user-contributions” and the latter in particular could make it better or completely useless depending on how it has been treated.

  2. Written by COMMENT : Requiem for the daily rag | ASEAN Society
    on May 4, 2009 at 8:35 am
    Reply · Permalink

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