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Twitter generation failed The Science Guy? Nonsense.

Updated again: There’s much less to this Yahoo story than it would appear

By Paul McNamara on Wed, 11/17/10 - 5:12pm.

The gist of the story on the front page of Yahoo News right now is that Bill "Science Guy" Nye passed out while approaching a lectern at which he was about to speak to several hundred USC students ... and those students callously ignored the stricken man's plight in favor of yammering about it on Twitter.

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Here's how the story starts:

Last night in front of an audience of hundreds at a presentation at the University of Southern California, TV personality Bill Nye - popularly known as the "Science Guy" - collapsed midsentence as he walked toward a podium. Early indications are that Nye is OK, but what's odd about the incident isn't so much Nye's slight health setback as the crowd's reaction. Or, more precisely, its nonreaction, according to several accounts.

It appears that the students in attendance, rather than getting up from their seats to rush to Nye's aid, instead pulled out their mobile devices to post information about Nye's loss of consciousness.

Immediately, I'm thinking this indictment has the smell of hooey. And, at closer reading, the stench becomes unmistakable. (Update: See other eyewitness accounts in comments.) Next paragraph:

Alastair Fairbanks, a USC senior in attendance for Nye's presentation, told the Los Angeles Times that "nobody went to his aid at the very beginning when he first collapsed - that just perplexed me beyond reason." The student added, "Instead, I saw students texting and updating their Twitter statuses. It was just all a very bizarre evening."

So at this point you have a picture of Nye lying unconscious on stage while no one - not an event organizer, nor an audience member - moves a muscle except to whip out the old iPhone and tell the world what happened in 140 characters or less. The Yahoo writer goes on to compare this transgression to the tweets that conveyed images of a dying murder victim in New Orleans and the famous video that made "don't tase me bro" a part of the lexicon. Tsk-tsk-tsk, what's wrong with kids today?

Now I wasn't there, but I'm not buying.

Let's go to that Los Angeles Times account to see if there's more information. By golly, yes, immediately before that damning quote from Alastair Fairbanks we get this:

Tristan Camacho, a USC senior who attended the lecture, said Nye was walking toward the podium when he collapsed mid-sentence. "Then after about 10 seconds, he popped back up with much gusto and asked everybody how long he was out for and went on with a story about how a similar thing happened to him that morning."

Nye appeared determined to finish his presentation, but began slurring his words and stumbled against his laptop, Camacho said. At first, Nye refused the offer of a chair and continued taking sips from a water bottle. Camacho said Nye was eventually removed from the stage.

Ten seconds? Exactly how many of the hundreds of self-absorbed tweeters in attendance were supposed to have rushed to Nye's side in those 10 seconds? And should they have continued that rush once Nye popped back up with much gusto? (Reading this paragraph took you about 10 seconds.)

Someone offered Nye a chair. Someone eventually helped him off the stage.

Aside from the one quote from the flabbergasted Fairbanks, neither the Times account nor one in the USC student newspaper took any issue with responsiveness or lack thereof of those young people in attendance. If the Yahoo writer had "several sources" to bolster his accusation of "non-reaction" by Generation Twitter, he managed to cite only one.

Moreover, the Yahoo story gives the distinct impression that the offensive tweeting and messaging was happening while Nye lay stricken ... for 10 seconds. Not likely.

What I am certain happened is that a number of those attendance, having witnessed a noteworthy event, used their phones to tell others. If you have been to any kind of public event in recent years you know that this kind of in-the-moment communication is about as noteworthy as a balky microphone.

And if you're going to accuse a couple hundred people of callous indifference toward the welfare of a fellow human being, you'd better bring more proof. Bill Nye would demand it.

(Update: It's astounding how many different sources are buying this load of crap uncritically, including: the vast majority of people commenting on the Yahoo story; Science 2.0; the normally sure-footed TechFlash (which at least adds dissenting views); some movie review site called CRM; and the New York Daily News (color me shocked).)

(Update 2: On a much brighter note, Nye is said to be doing just fine.)

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