I have seen the future and I’m not sure that I like it…

Much has already been written here and here  and here  and here about how the emerging social media, especially Twitter, outpaced traditional outlets during the Victorian bushfires. Fast and flexible, Twitter spread information through people’s overlapping social circles faster than industrial-age media could react.

As Mark Parker wrote, “It angers me that as I was getting official reports from credible/reliable sources this same information was taking hours to get distributed into the mainstream community. It wasn’t until close to 8pm AEDT [Saturday] that the Australian mainstream press finally started providing timely updates — nice work team.”

Key Twitter feeds like the unofficial @cfa_updates, @sbsnews and the ABC’s @774melbourne were must-reads. It’d be nice to imagine that someone, somewhere, got information via Twitter that saved a life — though with fewer than 1 in 5000 Australians on Twitter perhaps that’s unlikely.

But there was a darker side…

As slumbering media giants awoke to the fact that a major disaster was unfolding, they reported the rising death toll. 20 … 25 … 30 … 35 … would it never stop? As every new figure was posted, it was retweeted endlessly, as were links to every new photo, every new report, every new snippet of information which revealed the true horror of this, the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history.

The CFA pleaded for people to stop visiting its overloaded website unless they had a genuine need. Google stepped in to provide their own real-time map, relieving the burden.

People asked why there weren’t any Twitter updates from @KevinRuddPM, as if the PM didn’t have rather more important duties. When Rudd eventually appeared on TV every gesture, every word, was instantly examined for some sign. What does he know? He knows it’s worse, doesn’t he? He does!

From the safety of an air conditioned home in Sydney, 1000km away, it seemed surreal. And I wasn’t alone in that thought.

As Fake Stephen Conroy tweeted, “Sick of retweets of the #bushfires death-toll; it’s not a cricket score, you dumb f-cks. It’s just ghoulish and gross.”

The person behind one of the most widely read Twitter feeds for three wearying days told Crikey there were times they wouldn’t post some material. “It was just too much and I knew it would get retweeted!” they said.

“Thankfully I don’t have to deal with it any more.”

Another Twitter user told me privately, “It’s almost a competition to see who can publicly emote the most.”

For people threatened by bushfires, or those concerned for the safety of loved ones, up-to-date news is vital. No argument. We also need to share our emotions as a community — that’s what makes us a community. It was heart-rending to see one 17 year-old tweet (and I won’t link), “Just got told that a few friends who live in the bushfire area haven’t been found yet. Where’s a tissue, I have a tear in my eye.”

But for everyone else, obsessively tracking every latest horror “to see what it looks like” is nothing but selfish “recreational grief”. The morbid rubbernecking so hated by police and emergency workers.

I once read a sci-fi story where every time there was an accident the unwashed mob would teleport in to gawk. Today in the real world we don’t even need the teleportation booths. We can watch as much disaster p-rn as we want without stirring from home. Without even putting on pants. And it’s sick.