Observations on Twitter as angry college students assemble in frustration over the departure of their football coach.

The Facts

January 12th, 2010, Knoxville, TN, the University of Tennessee announced the unexpected resignation of the head coach for their collegiate football team. Upon hearing the news, hundreds of stunned fans and students filled the streets on campus. Slowly, crowds migrated to the facilities where multiple press conferences were taking place. Many in the crowd grew upset, spouting profanity and insults towards the exiting coach. Nonetheless, the gathering largely stayed peaceful. Upon the arrival of campus police, people complied with authority and slowly dispersed. In the tension, however, a mattress was set on fire along with fan related clothing items. The local Fire Department responded and extinguished the small flames.

These are the basic facts of the night as reported by the local Knoxville News Sentinel print newspaper. In retrospect, most would agree this turned out to be a rather minor event. But this was anything but minor as it unfolded on Twitter and other social media sites. The "angry mob" was not yielding pitch forks and torches; they were all carrying mobile phones, handheld devices, and ear pieces. The Instant Communication Generation (formally known as the Millennials) started texting, tweeting, and thumb pounding to update their social networking statuses. This was it, their chance to witness an ugly event and share it as it happened, live, on Twitter.

Run for the Hills!

The tweets, as compiled and analyzed by LocalChirps Data Mining software, show an interesting observation. Panic and misinformation runs through Twitter just as it does on a grade school playground. At 10:35pm that evening a single tweet (a text message sent via Twitter) declared, "THEY JUST TEAR GASSED EVERY1!!!" The author of this tweet is a well known student athlete and has 2750+ followers on Twitter. Within the next few minutes, this message was "retweeted" (repeated without alterations) by at least ten different Twitterers, with a combined following of 3550+ users. Another 13 people repeated this message in their own words, including one local television reporter, to a combined following of another 2320+ people.

Breathe deep, the air was clean. As you may have guessed, there was no tear gas. This author confirmed with campus police that "The UTPD never employed any type of tear gas." Incidentally, the UTPD confirmed via Twitter (@UTPolice), how cool is that? These are only the results for one tweet, and only those repeated locally within Knoxville, TN. That night the software recorded thousands of tweets in East Tennessee based on these events. Many more thousands in the days that followed.

When it goes too far

"If it was me, the coach never would have made it out of the meeting room."

"Tennessee fans spreading mapquest directions to Lane's house."

"Poll: Will kiffin make it out of Knoxville alive? __Yes __No"

These were all comments also tweeted and retweeted to thousands of Twitter followers that night. Unfortunately, text messages are missing a vital component of communication, the tone and intent of the sender. Are these messages, and many like them, serious? Or are these messages light hearted and whimsical? That's extremely hard to tell. However, as a comment gets repeated and retweeted, its legitimacy appears to grow. A misunderstood statement can shortly become a battle cry. That is quite scary.

There is hope

It must be mentioned, however, the very first tweet to respond to the original tear gas scare, within seconds (probably as fast as those thumbs could move), was doubt of its authenticity and a call for proof. "Dude, shoot some pics! Tear gas?" Certainly some level headed cynics remained in the crowd. The call was not answered, at least not directly.

Most tweets that night were harmless, some very humorous, quite a few nonsensical, and plenty just down right rude. But they were all unorganized. This time nothing truly serious occurred. If the last generation of campus rioters told us to "question authority," the next generation should probably heed the warning to "question the crowd."

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