At 3:34 a.m. on Feb. 27, something shook Leo Prieto awake. His apartment in Santiago, Chile, was in total darkness.
Nothing worked except for his cellphone. He sent out a message on Twitter: "What the heck was that?" In no time at all, Twitter crackled with messages from all over Chile with stories of serious injuries and collapsed buildings.
Evidently there had been a massive earthquake, and Prieto began to share messages with other Twitter users via his cellphone. In less than half an hour, CNN in Atlanta recognized Prieto as an unofficial hub of information and sent him a tweet asking for his cellphone number.
Soon Prieto, who is fluent in English, was being interviewed live on CNN.
The meaning of hyper-connectivity
At practically the same moment, the most important 24-hour news television station in Chile, 24 Horas, was reporting only, "There has been a major earthquake and we have no further information at this time." In other words, Twitter users were providing better information than the major news outlets.
For Prieto, founder of the popular techie-oriented blog Fayerwayer.com, this event meant at least two things:
- People move smoothly and transparently among various communication media without thinking about it. They use whatever is most convenient and useful in a given moment, be it social networks, smartphones, RSS, email, tablets, chat, instant messaging, computers. If one doesn't work, they use another.
- The safety forces and mass media need a voice in popular media to counter the tendency of people to speculate, spread rumors and create misinformation in the absence of official information.
In a presentation to the Laboratory of Digital News Entrepreneurship of the New Journalism Foundation in Colombia, Prieto told how in a matter of hours, the Chilean Army and police authorities established a presence on Twitter to give people up-to-date information about where to find help and how to avoid danger.
Implications for media
In a world with this kind of hyper connectivity, a news website can extend its influence by making itself available on many devices and many channels. That is the philosophy of Prieto's company, Betazeta.com, the parent company of Fayerwayer.
The 13 vertical media in the group offer their articles on email, RSS, social networks -- you name it -- and even encourage users to copy-paste without necessarily linking to the original article. They want their brand in as many places as possible. It is a counter-intuitive strategy -- by giving more away, you get more in return.
Evidently the strategy is working. Betazeta's verticals attract 8 million visitors a month. Revenues have grown from $6,000 in 2007 to an estimated $2.5 million in 2011.
Hyperconnectivity is not just for a few geeks, he says, but even for grandmas, who use email, social networks and text messages to stay connected with their extended families.
The dream of Betazeta, Prieto says, is to revolutionize mass media by changing the power structure of the industry. Instead of spreading the political agendas of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington, he hopes to build an information model based on user-generated content.
His advice to digital news entrepreneurs: Create a community. Engage that community by reacting to its comments and contributions to your website. Give them feedback so they know you're paying attention. The community, he says, defines the power of the medium, not the owner.