Saturday, March 23, 2013

The medium and the message

For a long time I have been thinking about alerts and warnings, and the problems associated with their use in severe weather, winter storms, homeland security, and so on. These are well documented - the fact that there is not a specific action associated with warnings, their meaning is occluded, people ignore them because of too many false alarms, confuse watches, warnings, and advisories, and so on.

I think the basic problem is that a status (warning, watch, alert, orange, red, advisory, whatever) is not a message - it is a medium. It is a vehicle to deliver information, versus the information itself. So our focus should be on getting the information to people, rather than getting the vehicle to people. A "winter storm warning" or a "tornado warning" has very little information content; the fact that there could be 9 inches of snow between 9am and 3pm, or that there is a tornado on the ground just entering the west of the county is information. We spend a lot of time trying to persuade people to respond in certain ways to the vehicles - "when there is a tornado warning, take cover!" rather than trying to persuade them to respond in certain ways to particular kinds of information - "if you get information that there is a tornado on the ground, heading your way..."

The reason I think this is important now is social media. With social media, we have the capacity to choose to deliver formal vehicles, or actual information. I believe actual information, presented informally, is usually more - well, informative. Compare the following tweets:
A tornado warning has been issued for Boobah County! Take Cover Now!
A winter storm watch is in effect for Foo County!
Spotters have reported tornado 25 miles west of Nowheresville, moving east - take cover now if in path!
We could get hit by a late snowstorm tomorrow - up to 12 inches starting around noon, lasting till 7pm. Still lots of uncertainty in prediction though.
See what I mean? So a warning, alert, advisory, or whatever, is a trigger to put some information out on Twitter or Facebook or by text message - but think about putting out the actual information, rather than simply transmitting the trigger.


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