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By now, you've probably heard of Falcon Heene, the six year-old Colorado boy who the world thought was trapped in a helium balloon that escaped into the sky last week. It turns out he really isn't Balloon Boy, but it's too late for that now.

Shortly after reports of Heene's airborne adventure hit the newswire, Balloon Boy became a social media mega-meme. Individuals glued to their computer screens tweeted and blogged up a storm about the boy they thought was flying through the skies at 8,000 feet. The most creative quickly seized upon the opportunity.

The news media was right there too, dedicating massive coverage to the story live offline and on. If there ever was an example of a 'slow news day', this would probably be it.

Of course, we now know that the entire thing was a hoax perpetrated by a family determined to attract attention. The clues were hidden in plain sight. And while the balloon was in the air it became known that the Heene family had appeared twice on a reality TV show. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. It's easy now to ask why wasn't there more skepticism. But that's pretty obvious: nobody had an incentive to be skeptical at the time. After all, why kill such a compelling story, even if it was too good to be true?

If #balloonboy demonstrates anything, it demonstrates that consumers of both social media and the news media are usually after the same thing: entertainment.

Sure, social media has the potential to distribute breaking news and information when major events occur, and the news media does cover topics of great importance. But as was the case when Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River or when a disputed election in Iran sparked a Twitter 'revolution', entertainment value is the primary driver. Whether you're talking television ratings or tweets-per-second, the mediums may be different but that doesn't really matter. Give people an incredible story, international intrigue, a display of heroism, etc. etc. etc. and you can expect nothing less than individuals to sit and stare at screen watching it all unfold -- whether it's a television screen or a computer screen.

#balloonboy stands out because it is perhaps the most blatant example yet of a non-story that became a story thanks to a possessed mediasphere. When a plane crashes or a country falls into chaos, it's a bit easier to justify gawking on the grounds that there are valid intellectual and emotional reasons to follow along. That's not the case here and it's pretty obvious that #balloonboy was a complete waste of time.

To be sure, this isn't social media's fault, but I think it's worth considering that social media is actually contributing greatly to the decay of quality news media. Before Twitter et. al., there would have been no #balloonboy. You probably wouldn't have seen CNN's live coverage because you would have been busy at work, and because CNN probably wouldn't have considered missing out on all the Twitter referrals to its articles and live video coverage. Instead, Balloon Boy would simply be something mentioned in passing over dinner as someone asked "Did you hear about that kid...?". Unfortunately, social media strongly reinforces the always-on, ADD-like 24/7 news cycle that everyone loves to hate, and gives accused attention seekers like the Heenes even more incentive to up their level of stupidity.

In short, #balloonboy is evidence that social media and the mainstream news media are fast becoming best of friends. And for all of the virtues of the relationship, there's plenty of #fail that's hard to ignore too.

Photo credit: griffithchris via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 20 October, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2377 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Steve Merrick - FirstFound

I think the Twitsphere needs a healthy dose of skepticism. The brevity of the Twitter systems means that claims seem to be taken at face value - the recent spate of "celebrity death" trending topics being a prime example.

almost 7 years ago

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Simon Heath

Social media is a channel for ALL kinds of 'story' or message - including non-stories. In terms of where we're at with adoption and understanding of social media, it's early on in the evolutionary process -  so there is a fascination and new-ness about it especially for those that don't use it for business purposes etc. To some people, you're right, perhaps entertainment is the 'primary driver'. Voyeurism will always exist online. But this is not so for ALL social media audiences. 

I have to disagree with you when you say "...social media is actually contributing greatly to the decay of quality news media". On the contrary I think it's beginning to (emphasis on beginning to) sharpen it up - it has to be 'good' if we are going to pay any attention to it, retweet it, share it, talk about it etc etc. Bad journalism is given free reign online but people will filter it out. Survival of the fittest still applies online.

There are so many other examples of where social media has significantly helped to highlight important issues to audiences that may not have engaged with it otherwise: US election, Iran election, Moldova communisim debate and the Georgia/Russia conflict. And just this weekend in the UK the Jan Moir/Daily Mail homophobia outcry.

We are seeing social media going mainstream - an important milestone in its coming of age - we have to take the rough/trivial with the smooth/real benefits.

almost 7 years ago

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farouk

you are extreemly right, actually i wonder why twitter popular and why are people using it, it would be great to provide an article that explains why people use twitter

almost 7 years ago

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Andrew Wise, Lemon Cat Ltd

Another Twitter causing the death of old media story !....

And I suppose 24 hour TV is responsible for the death of respectable scheduled news journalism because of the pressure to broadcast a continuously developing story rather than a considered news piece.

Oh, and TV is responsible for the death of responsible newspapers because the pressure for moving pictures biases stories towards the visual rather than the essential importance of the story itself

And I dare say newspapers were the death of the town crier, who was responsible and accurate because he was known in the community

The honest truth is that journalism always has and always will be changing.  It always has and always will balance news value and entertainment value.

Its illogical to say "that social media is actually contributing greatly to the decay of quality news media" - don't blame the medium, it is inanimate and unable to determine its own actions - its customers / consumers who are evolving as they always have done and always will do.  Social media is simply another channel for communication.

Andy

almost 7 years ago

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Replica

Just get online today and you will see what is all about, they have the most beautiful stuff that you have ever seen, check it out, you won´t regret it.

over 6 years ago

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