As two Stanford University researchers described their experience watching public reactions in the initial days of the swine flu outbreak, it sounded like one of those nature films in which tiny fish dart back and forth in perfect unison.
The researchers were tracking thousands of Twitter posts pouring into an Internet site. With every twist and turn of the flu reports, the researchers noticed, the mass of tweets swung this way and that as if they were one, even though the individual Twitterers had no contact with each other outside the website.
It was a rare window into the public psyche amid an explosion of information about a potentially dangerous disease outbreak.
The researchers -- James Holland Jones, an associate professor of anthropology, and Marcel Salathe, a biologist -- devised an online survey to gauge people's anxiety about the H1N1 epidemic in real time. Posted early during the outbreak, the survey generated about 8,000 responses in a matter of days, but dropped off as doomsday predictions did not come to pass -- a development that worried Jones.
"Swine flu is still out there and will be back next flu season," he said. "We've dodged the pandemic for now, but I think it's a very open question whether we have really dodged it. You certainly won't hear that on the 24-hour news channels."
As charted by Jones and Salathe, the shifting reactions to H1N1 suggested that as the country has become more wired, people may move from indifference to anxiety and back to indifference in the blink of an eye.
This worries me too. The vast majority of visitors here are North Americans, and for most of the last four years the threat of a pandemic was remote from us: Something fermenting in the rice paddies of Asia, killing off unfortunate little girls in China and Vietnam. We have observed the story arc of H5N1 like any other story, as a form of entertainment.