The saga of Congressman Joe Wilson provides a primer for how social networking and the Internet have transformed not just the coverage of the news, but the making of it.
I was watching the president's health-care speech from home on CNN with my laptop open. (I like seeing what people are Twittering during major televised events.) When Wilson shouted, "You lie," several people tweeted, "Did someone just call the president a liar?" "Who was it?" Within seconds, Wilson was identified on CNN and his name was immediately tweeted and e-mailed to millions.
This is how fast history (such as it is) changes: I looked at Wilson's Wikipedia entry 10 minutes after the incident — while the speech was still going on — and the congressman's bio had already been updated to include the shout.
Wilson's Twitter and e-mail addresses and congressional phone numbers were sent out to millions of people. Thousands of messages were sent to Wilson, demanding he apologize. Within 20 minutes, the name, website, and phone number of Wilson's opponent in the 2010 congressional election had been spread around the blogosphere. (Eight hours later, more than $400,000 had been pledged to him.)
So many websites about Wilson's background were sent to me that within a half-hour I'd learned more about an obscure South Carolina congressman's history and record than I know about my own representative's. And this was a man I'd never heard of before.
Wilson quickly apologized, more or less, for his actions. The next day, he appeared on Fox News, where he received sympathy and understanding as only Sean Hannity can deliver it. Rush Limbaugh, predictably, offered his support. On the opposite side of the spectrum, on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann did a typically histrionic "special comment" on Wilson, elevating the man and his moment of rudeness to even higher planes of outrage.
Let's review: Joe Wilson went from utter obscurity to a household name in 24 hours. His opponent now has twice as much money as he does. Millions of people think he's a fool. Fifty years ago, his outburst might have been reported in the morning paper. Or not. But most people would never have heard about it. In 2009, we're all connected, like bees in a cyber-hive. Consequences come quick and hard. Public stupidity is much more difficult to get away with.
That's a good thing, right?