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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.