These days most news that breaks on Twitter seems to come from established institutions or well-known reporters and it spreads rapidly.
But there are occasions when an individual can make an observation that is so compelling that it spreads slowly and steadily until it snowballs into the news cycle.
Dylan Mckay did it this week. And his story explains a lot about the allure of social media, how ideas are communicated, how fast they spread and how they can drive and shape the narrative of breaking news coverage.
After reading how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data, Mckay, a third-year computer science student at Victoria University of Wellington, wondered how much the social media company knew about him.
He did what every technology reporter should have done. He downloaded his data.
He was struck by the fact that Facebook had stored not just his posts and list of friends, but the people he called on the telephone and the duration of those calls.
He thought about it for a few days and then posted it on Twitter. At that time he had about 50 followers on the social media platform.
What happened next is one of the miracles of the Internet age.
His developer friends read and shared the article, spreading it among a larger tech community in New Zealand and eventually across the world.
Within five days it had been re-tweeted 40,000 times and liked 51,000 times. More than a thousand people commented. Some could and some couldn’t reproduce the results.
McKay kept investigating, trying to understand how Facebook mined the information. He even got his grandmother to send him her Facebook data.
At that point a reporter from the New Zealand Dominion Post called and Ars Tecnica reporter Sean Gallagher wrote a piece that brought the story to the attention of the mainstream media, spawning articles in other outlets.
Facebook responded, publishing a “Fact Check” to explain that it only stores the data after users “opt-in.”
McKay said he turned down offers to go on TV because he isn’t “keen to push a story which I don’t 100% understand and can’t 100% visually verify.”
Also, he said he wanted to “stay neutral, only stating what I’ve observed.” He said the media treated him fairly. He gave kudos to Gallagher, who he said “seems to have done the most due diligence.”
McKay said he was so new to Twitter he didn’t know to use hashtags to promote the story, relying instead on “organic” sharing.
After the post took off, his girlfriend showed him how to pin the tweet to the top of his profile. His follower count has skyrocketed to 6,488.
He said one of the most exciting moments was when the New Zealand Privacy Commissioner commented on his post.
McKay’s story is amazing in so many ways. How a young person pointed out something that legions of professional journalists missed. How it spread like wildfire from a few friends to a network of global influencers and how the flames were fanned by media outlets.
The story is also a reminder of how the world has gotten smaller: The same platform that enabled McKay to reach out to the world allowed me connect with him. I sent him a direct message on Twitter and he responded.
Almost a week later the story is still reverberating, with the Associated Press blaming Google for letting Facebook collect the data from Android phones.
That article credits Ars Technica for breaking the news. It doesn’t mention McKay.
I think he’s probably o.k. with that. He’s focused on school and graduating next year.