Full disclosure: I’ve lived in North St. Louis County my whole life. Until May, I stayed a block from the Ferguson police station, a short walk from where Mike Brown died.
I’m reluctant to furnish these details because this is not a story about me or how I feel. I’m not among the most aggrieved parties here. In a two-thirds black community, I’m a white boy—a relatively poor one, but a white boy nonetheless. At a local bar in Ferguson a week after Mike Brown was shot, an older black man told me, “You look like a fuckin’ nerd, dawg!” I told him it was intentional, I am one. We laughed—but because of this nerdy, white exterior, I was statistically seven-times less likely to be pulled over when we left that night.
True to geek-form, I had been hunched over my phone. I have to confess that despite my proximity to, knowledge of and love for the community, my chief source of reliable, verifiable information during all this madness has been, astonishingly, Twitter. Despite the fact that I’m here now, on the ground, Twitter has been my eyes and ears. This has proven true for residents, activists and law enforcement alike.
In the same way people worldwide followed recent experiments in social journalism—whether in Gaza, Egypt or during the Boston Marathon bombing—I now follow my community, Ferguson.
In the early hours and days after Mike Brown was gunned down, an information gap grew between those within the Twitterverse and those without. Local TV news was limited; newspapers wouldn’t press until early next morning; even web write-ups were slow to appear.
Meanwhile on Twitter,#Ferguson, #MikeBrown and #StLouis were all among the most Tweeted-about topics worldwide within hours of the shooting. The platform exploded with the activity of community champions, citizen and professional journalists, and state and local officials, many of whom are now receiving international media attention. Unless you were in Canfield Apartments or on West Florissant, there was no clearer vantage point nor marketplace of ideas more bustling.
This appears to have been the first shot uploaded:
City alderman Antonio French became the public face of this conflict on day one, doing cable news interviews by day and holding back protesters from police lines by night, live tweeting it all. Democratic Missouri State Representative Maria Chappelle Nadal endured tear gas alongside protesters and has been a vocal critic of Governor Jay Nixon on social media. Likewise, State Senator for Missouri's 5th district Jamilah Nasheed and Patricia Bynes, a Democratic Committeewoman for the 1st congressional district, have stood with protesters while sharing updates, photos and press coverage.
St. Louis-based, Universal Group-distributed rapper Tef Poe has been another digital-physical force in all this. Tef says he has family in the area and was tweeting from the scene within hours. His feed has reflected the reactionary outrage of young black men in North St. Louis and places like it nationwide. He's helped rally the community every day—though notably also retweeted misinformation, including that a key witness had been found dead early Sunday morning (he later tried to dispel the rumor). This is at least one unfortunate consequence of instant, sharable communication in a traumatized, angry community.
Netta is a local resident whose YouTube account features “random talks about my natural hair, life, etc.” She organized clean-up crews, fed protesters and engaged with pretty much anyone who tweeted their support.
Of course, journalists are dug in, far too many to name. Evidence enough for me:
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's own David Carson took a now-iconic photo of the young man in the American flag shirt hurling a burning tear gas canister away from crowds and homes. That guy's name is Edward, Twitter handle @eyeFLOODpanties. Classic.
The involvement of the hacker group Anonymous complicated matters early-on. City and county-affiliated websites quickly fell under DDoS attacks and the group released details on the St. Louis County Police chief's family and home. @TheAnonMessage was suspended following the release of a man's photo they falsely identified as the shooter, Darren Wilson. Another account, @OpFerguson, is still operational. Community reaction to Anonymous involvement has been mixed—skewing negative, but some social media savvy residents see the group as allies against corrupt law enforcement.
Local and national mainstream outlets were up to speed by Monday morning. By Wednesday night, tear gas landed at the feet of Al Jazeera English producers setting up a shot. County police were locking up looters, activists and journalists alike.
While many do the difficult work of reporting from the field, others provide context, background and collation remotely—and broadcast it under #Ferguson, #MikeBrown.
Required reading includes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's excellent exploration of Brown's Canfield neighborhood of Ferguson—its roots, recent history and reaction to this tragedy. Also #Ferguson in Pictures. St. Louis Public Radio did a useful by-the-numbers piece explaining Ferguson's unique regional demographics: the black majority of Ferguson is less educated and makes $15,000 less than the average white resident in a city policed by a 95% white force.
Ex-Democratic State Senator Jeff Smith wrote an impassioned, historical account of North City's decline for The New Republic, and another for The New York Times. A former rising star in Missouri, Smith served a year in jail on for small-time, technical campaign finance fraud—a painstakingly account of these events was given by Ira Glass and This American Life. He gave a popular TED talk on what he learned while incarcerated. Smith has been active online and summed up Ferguson police's self-reported data here:
At the bar Saturday, the older gentleman who called me a nerd also said he wouldn't be surprised if Mike Brown was fucking with the cops. He said he wouldn't get caught messing around like that. He admitted he'd had too much to drink.
On the same patio, a bearded, white, self-described libertarian said he doubted very much that he was given any special privileges for his race whatsoever.
Walking around Ferguson this week, meeting people from every walk of life, you hear every possible opinion and perspective. The same is true on Twitter and social media.
Local Facebook traffic was rife with rumor and opinion both enlightened and egregious—public unfriending right and left. But Facebook featured fewer boots on the ground, less breaking news, and just as many come-to-my-show, look-at-my-kid posts as ever. On this network, by design and user demand, interpersonal sharing is a private transaction intended for a directly-connected few. Information does not usually reverberate, and is meant to be Liked and Only Liked.
But everything is transparent on Twitter. The platform's democratic nature ensures everyone gets a say, even those who abuse the privilege. Your Twitter feed isn't parsed or filtered like Facebook—every tweet from any user you follow is delivered in chronological order (along with a sponsored post, here and there). Anyone can follow anyone.
Forget the arbitrary 140-character limit—the ability to share photos, videos, links and content transcends it. The hashtag system acts like a digital filing cabinet. Anyone with internet access can personally scour every public tweet mentioning #MikeBrown and #Ferguson, though the results aren't as egalitarian as your own feed. Still, every favorite, reply and retweet is on permanent public record.
If I was still skeptical of Twitter's utility or staying power before Saturday night, consider this my Damascene conversion. If I thought it purely vain or petty or an endless din of idiocy—as it can be—I recanted those beliefs when Twitter co-founder and St. Louis City native Jack Dorsey showed up on West Florissant this Sunday. Very meta:
There are some for whom apps, pricey smartphones and unlimited data plans are unreasonable excesses.
Consider Chris King's profile of Anthony Shahid. A sexagenarian activist and definitely not a Twitter user, Shahid's bravery and calming voice has repeatedly been cited by Antonio French, Tef Poe and Highway Patrol Captain Robinson. Mr. Shahid is having a tangible, moment-to-moment effect not because he's taking breaks to live-tweet the protests—but because he is down in the thick of it, scrapping for every hard-won inch of progress, every temper held in check.
That's the other half of the social media-social justice equation. Engagement not in terms of likes, favorites and retweets—engagement in the world, in people, in real life events, even those which do not directly affect yourself.
In-person protest and public participation are vital as ever—that cannot be overstated.
Still, even for those directly involved, Twitter has been one of the primary information distribution channels bringing these events to the world stage. It has been the main public forum for St. Louis residents county-wide, and eventually everywhere around the globe. Never before has it been possible to peek in on so many simultaneous perspectives and worldviews at once. David Carr of The New York Times observed from afar:
And no genuine change or good has occurred to date. To this point we’re only treating the symptoms, not the disease. It will be ugly and ongoing.
All of it, for better and worse, will be broadcast over a 24-hour social-cycle that doesn’t relent.
Really, that’s what changed. People everywhere around the world started paying attention to a tiny city-outside-a-city that even many St. Louisans wrote off long ago. No one’s ever paid attention—to that I can attest. Without widespread social sharing of the Ferguson unrest and the subsequent law enforcement crackdown, Mike Brown’s name would never have been known. This community’s grievances might never have been aired.