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Rodriguez: What Twitter can't tell you

No matter how often you check your smartphone, you won't get the whole story.

Gregory Rodriguez

October 15, 2012

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I've finally stopped believing the tech gurus in skinny jeans and hipster glasses who preach about the glories of the new networked world in which everyone and everything are connected all the time. They make it sound as if the Cloud and Twitter are the answer to all our problems, social or otherwise. I don't buy it.

Sure, the Internet keeps me in touch with lots of people and with news happening in the most remote parts of the globe. Last week via Twitter I learned, almost in real time, of the arrest (and then release) of a dissident writer in Cuba. I knew that a vandal had defaced a Mark Rothko painting at the Tate Modern in London hours before news agencies reported it.

But at home in Los Angeles, my so-called networked reality hasn't connected me to my neighbors as much as it has come to remind me of how little I know about them.

Several months ago, my wife insisted we weren't sufficiently linked to our little piece of the metropolis. She wanted to know what was happening when a firetruck whizzed by or crime-scene tape closed off a street around our Koreatown apartment.

Because Facebook promises to keep us in touch with the people around us, and Twitter touts its ability to instantly share what's important, social media seemed like a quick fix. I started following the feeds of some trusted local reporters, television stations and the Los Angeles Fire Department.

The early returns were promising. Our new connectedness helped us fill in the gaps of what was otherwise mysterious chaos. In February, a quick glance at a Facebook post on my phone told us that the helicopters we heard above our building were tracking a carjacking suspect from San Bernardino. (We turned on the television in time to watch 11 officers — just a few blocks away — fire more than 60 bullets into the suspect's car.)

Likewise, in early September, an item on social media explained why the police had closed off local streets and another swarm of copters was hovering above our apartment. Some genius who lives near 3rd and Normandie had fired a gun from his apartment balcony at a man on the street. Once again, my newly networked world put an explanation to the sound and the fury.

But has the added information deepened our connection to anyone or anything? In some ways, I feel less isolated. Yet our expanded knowledge often ends up raising more questions. And sometimes it only highlights how much of everyday life occurs under the radar of the digital world.

In mid-September, sirens and smoke drew us to the roof of our building to watch firefighters put down a blaze on the top floor of a nearby low-rise. That night, I received a tweet from the Fire Department with a link to a blog update on the "structure fire" in question. It stated simply, "Patient count now at 3: one critical, two minor: No additional patients anticipated."

I said a brief prayer for the unknown victim still listed as critical, but I never found out his or her name or how the story ended.

Then, two weeks ago, my wife and I were awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of groaning and screaming in Korean. I called 911 before I headed outside. Across the street in a parking lot, two people appeared to be tending to a very distraught, and perhaps very drunk, woman who was lying on the ground. I didn't get close enough to see more, except that upon hearing the sirens approaching, the woman on the ground was whisked into a car and all three sped away before two ambulances and a police car arrived.

Still bothered by the woman's screams, the next morning I went to the spot where she had been lying. I could see bloodstains on the asphalt. A black elastic hair tie lay nearby. Had she fallen? Did she hit her head? Was she beaten?

The next day, I found no digital trail. I knew that calling the police, who'd missed more than I'd seen, wouldn't help.

I realized that as connected as we are, this digital revolution cannot suddenly crack all the many barriers — language, culture, kinship, to name a few — that keep humans apart.

I appreciate the convenience, and the occasional front-row seat on drama and tragedy that social media, the 24-hour news cycle and a smartphone can offer. But no matter what the TED conference experts say, and no matter how often I check my Twitter feed, we're about as much in the dark here in Koreatown as we ever were. Hyper-connectedness doesn't get us very far when it comes to deciphering sirens and screams, or even overheard late-night laughter. Frankly, when it comes to the pain and joy of real life, it can only scratch the surface.

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com