In the old days, the old Gods would send Mercury to bring news. The messenger of the Gods, with his winged feet, was unstoppable and would bring the messages wherever they had to go. We, modern people, are so used to fast, reliable communication. Phones. Messaging services. They became the cornerstone of our society. We’re so used to having our loved ones on fast dial : reassuringly convenient.
And then, there was Pukkelpop. Within minutes the nice music festival (over 60.000 people attending) turned into a nightmare when a thunderstorm unleashed its wrath, rain, hail and winds over Kievit. Trees snapped, areas were flooded, tents collapsed, stages crumbled down, poles and debris were flying around everywhere, killing five people, leaving 11 people seriously wounded, and sending close to 70 people to medical attention centers. Read Andrew Vassallo ‘s eye witness testimonial here.
Within minutes 60.000 families heard their son or daughter was in a disaster area. Followed a communication nightmare: youngsters trying to call or text home, parents desperately trying to get news from their kids, while organizers and medical teams tried to help where help was needed (everywhere). Mobile phone networks could not cope with the peak in demand, lines went dead. Mobile phones could not cope with the rain. Phones went dead.
But where voice calls had trouble reaching through, the mobile internet stayed on. A steady stream of tweets started to hit the internet. First chaotic messages coming from the festival, about wounded people, and dying people. Very quickly, the tweets got organized: youngsters telling they were ok (using #PPOK), parents asking for news of loved ones, tweeps helping to look for the missing.
People in the neighborhood started offering their help on Twitter: from dry clothes, food, warm drinks, a place to stay the night, a shoulder to cry on, or a ride home… the whole Hasselt region mobilized via Twitter to help the tens of thousands distressed youngsters .
More than 19000 tweets were sent, with a top around 20:00 with over 5100 tweets. For a lot of anxious families and friends, the quickest way of getting news was over the Twitter network. Even the factual information on what happened, how severe the damage was, the casualties, etc came way faster through Twitter than through the organization , the police or fire departments.
“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. I disagree. The medium is the medium. It should be set apart from the message. Only a week ago, UK Prime Minister David Cameron had the firm intention of shutting down Twitter altogether during the London riots: “Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill,” he said. “When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.” Stopping the bad guys? By all means. Grounding the medium? Never.
Pukkelpop11 showed that social networks have become our modern Mercury, the unstoppable messenger. Mercury brings the message, but is not responsible for the content. The messenger should never be shot, Mister Cameron.
But that does not help the pained families of Pukkelpop, my thoughts go to them. Hope the countless messages of sympathy bring them some peace.