My brother Gregg and his wife Angella (a web developer and illustrator) live on a mountainside in Fishhoek in the Western Cape. Their house overlooks the main swimming beach. On a balmy summer’s day their lounge window frames an idyllic picture: a stretch of white beach lining an azure coastline littered with bathers, surfers, tourists and the like.
From such a height the people on the beach tend to resemble the miniature figurines populating a model train-set or the busy layout of a Where’s Wally picture book.
On Tuesday afternoon, around 15:35 Gregg and Angella heard a commotion on the Fishhoek beach and ran outside to see what was happening. Glancing down at the Fishhoek bay they spotted a giant shadow (of about 150m) gunning towards a colourful bobbing object. From such a distance they were unable to make out whether this object was a bather, bouy or beach ball?
It’s now pretty well known that the shadow turned out to be a Great White Shark, a suspicion confirmed when they saw the creature break the waves and wrap its jaws around the bobbing lump before submerging itself again and taking the object with it. Gregg being the techno savvy guy he is– with i-phone permanently attached to hip– Tweeted the sighting on micro blogging portal Twitter as fast as it seemed to happen.
His first Tweet read……
Tue 12 Jan at 15:40: Holy shit, we just saw a GIGANTIC shark eat what looked like a person right in front of our house in Fishhoek. Unbelievable.
Seven minutes later he posted a new update……
Tue 12 Jan at 15:47: We are dumbstruck, that was so surreal. That shark was HUGE. Like dinosaur huge.
This was followed by further tweets over the next few hours that included details on the arrival of the emergency services and confirmation that the colourful bobbing lump was indeed a human-being.
What is both fascinating and disturbing to see was how quickly these ‘tweets’ were snapped up by Internet news agencies and how fast news, via the rapid and tangled broadband grapevine, is capable of getting around these days.
Like a bunch of dumbstruck pedestrians rubber-necking round a car wreck we all logged on and began hanging onto Gregg’s every tweet.
“Haai skeur glo persoon in twee!” screamed one of the Afrikaans headlines.
“There was everywhere blood” reported another.
“Hey, I didn’t say there was blood.” Gregg protested moments after his Tweets started to appear in Afrikaans. “Those aren’t my words.”
“Sorry…” shrugged the Journo, reluctant to let the whole truth (and nothing but) get in the way of good yarn. “Must have got you confused with another eye-witness I had spoken to.”
In what seemed to be an instant, his tweet: “Holy shit, we just saw a GIGANTIC shark eat what looked like a person” was cut and paste onto headlines appearing in eleven official languages—most of which were “embellished” rather than “lost” in translation.
News website headlines begun to change by the minute. Gregg’s description of the shark as ‘a giant shadow’ and ‘Dinosaur’ were exclaimed in bold and accompanied by regiments of exclamation marks. In the space of two hours and aided by I-phone and few earnest Tweets, Gregg was flailing in the deep-end of a media feeding frenzy
“Tell us more.” The press implored. The phone ringing off the hook, radio stations requesting interview after interview, more tit bits and sound-bites.
“Oh my god” gushed a Twitter devotee, “You’re like the Twitter equivalent of Susan Boyle.”
I logged onto the net shortly after I heard the news (Ironically through a Facebook message left by a friend living in San Francisco) and what a disturbing demonstration of ‘hack- hunter-gathering’ it turned out to be.
After a few hours the ‘Dinosaur’ simile was considered a bit pre—historic and passé. The headline honchos now required a fresh sound bite and gory-headline to set their Google stats soaring. So they pressed him for more details and in an interview with the Cape Times he obliged, this time with a revised description of the beast….
“It (the shark) was longer than a minibus and the rubber ducks lifeguards use.”
And that was that! ‘Minibus’ and ‘rubber ducks’ became the new catch-phrases. In retrospect, I’m surprised not a single journo took the liberty to cut-and-paste together a sensational headline with the words ‘Killer’+ ‘Prehistoric + ‘rubber-duck’.
Similarly information around the identity and remains of the victim were as unreliable. Initially his torso was reported to have washed up, then it was just a limb until finally a pair of swimming- goggles were confirmed by authorities as the only vestiges.
For the most of Tuesday evening, the victim remained an international man of mystery and holder of multiple passports. First he was cited as a Capetonian, later a citizen of the DRC and then finally a Zimbabwean from Harare. It took until Wednesday morning- once everyone had calmed down, gone home and done a little homework— for the deceased to be officially confirmed as Lloyd Skinner, a 37 year old Zimbabwean from Harare living in the DRC and holidaying in Cape Town at the time of the attack.
Needless to say by Wednesday morning Gregg’s Tweets had found themselves gracing lamp-posts and newspaper front-pages and news websites across the planet including The Guardian, Sky News, News.com.au and Norway’s top newspaper (where a Google translation from Norwegian into English distorts one of his Twitter quote’s to read…..“We saw a giant shark eating up anything that seemed to be a person outside our house.”)
Two days later and close to 350 new followers had signed up to his twitter account. Now while I admit Gregg is a super-interesting and dynamic guy this is a pretty horrific set of expectations to have to follow up on.
With his fifteen-minutes of Twitter fame, one suspects that his hoards of new disciples are following him up the mountain in the hope he’ll witnesses this type of ‘Discovery-Channel’ carnage every second day of the week.
So what’s next on Coppen’s (or ‘@skabenga’ as he’s known in the Twit realm) tweet agenda?
“Sea Gulls Assail Kalk Bay Fishermen?” “Rabid Seal on the loose terrorising Fishoek Pensioners?” “Demented Penguin holds Pick n’ Pay Shoppers Hostage.”
Watch this space and remember if there’s a lesson to be learnt here……It’s be careful what you ‘tweet’ for.