“Forecast: random mid-air explosions with a chance of the neighbors setting your house on fire.” This post from July 4 captures the sarcastic-but-informative tone of MeanStreets Omaha, “a group of passionate volunteers live-tweeting the Omaha Police and Fire scanner” since May 2013. The clandestine MeanStreets Omaha organization consists of a small number of anonymous individuals who translate police and fire scanners into tweets, covering issues ranging from weather, to traffic, to crime, to “free” couches left on the side of the interstate.
The handle @MeanStreetsOMA boasts more than 118,000 followers on Twitter—between
@WOWT6News’ 104,000 and @KETV’s 130,000—effectively making it a leading social media news source in Omaha. A similar account in a much larger Midwestern city, @Chicago_Scanner, has roughly 40,000 Twitter followers.
MeanStreets Omaha’s digital presence also consists of meanstreetsoma.com (an aggregate site with answers to frequently asked questions, an online store, and links to a plethora of resources), a GoFundMe page (which shows they’ve nearly reached their goal of $5,500), Instagram and YouTube accounts, and a Facebook profile with 67,000 followers.
So, what makes MeanStreets Omaha so popular?
“It’s amazing all the ‘little things’ that go on every single day in our community that nobody ever hears about from the big guys,” wrote Brad Williams, posting on an eOmahaForums thread about Mean Streets in March. “I find all the real life every day [expletive] that OPD has to deal with interesting and
@MeanStreetsOMA is great at pointing that stuff out.”
Jeremy Harris Lipschultz, a professor with the University of Nebraska-Omaha Social Media Lab and author of the newly revised Social Media Communication: Concepts, Practices, Data, Law and Ethics, thinks the size of the Omaha community contributes to MeanStreets Omaha’s popularity. He also cites the organization’s “creative aspects of communication” (e.g., their callbacks, humor, memes, etc.), but it is their engagement with the community that really draws people to them. “They’re not afraid to engage with their audience,” explains Lipschultz. “So, when people tweet at them—it might be a retweet, or it might be a reply, or a like, or a comment—but people know they’re out there, and that’s a kind of social connection, this building of online community through their identity, and presence, and interaction with others.”
Twitter user Ryan Allen (@NexusNcontext), an avid @MeanStreetsOMA follower, agrees. He cites the “collaboration that seems to exist between followers, as well as people in the media, and those in police departments” as one of the reasons he checks @MeanStreetsOMA multiple times a day. “An event will happen, people in the area will tweet pictures, local media accounts will request permission to use those pictures on the news, and police officers will chime in, too.” Allen relates an anecdote where he overheard a police helicopter in his neighborhood, tweeted an inquiry at @MeanStreetsOMA, and received an explanation within minutes.
In addition to the community and media, MeanStreets Omaha also collaborates closely with Omaha police officers and departments. “[Police departments] have become aware that social media are a tool for gathering information about potential criminal activity,” explains Lipschultz, “and also for exercising community policing.”
Given the number of @MeanStreetsOMA followers, it makes sense for the Omaha Police Department to get involved; however, representatives of the Omaha Police Department declined to comment for this article.
The kind of grassroots, crowd-sourced news that MeanStreets Omaha provides appeals to those distrustful of the mainstream media and those looking for news with a more local and personal focus. Another commenter (using the name “jag42”) captured the sentiment with the following addition to the eOmahaForums thread: “I consider MeanStreets Omaha to be Omaha’s leading news source.”
Their popularity is undeniable, but what motivates MeanStreets Omaha?
“I think it serves as a curator for raw, unconfirmed information that’s swirling around on the internet,” Lipschultz explains. Acknowledging that they aren’t monetizing their efforts beyond what’s required to maintain them, Allen argues that MeanStreets Omaha is about accountability and transparency. “They provide you with the ability to put things into context and to take information that is raw, fluid, and truthful,” he explains. “There’s no hiding the scanner.”
In contrast to their crowd-sourced, grassroots approach to news, the volunteers of MeanStreets Omaha go to great lengths to maintain their anonymity. In February 2016, when asked why they choose to be anonymous on a Reddit AMA (which stands for “Ask Me Anything”), the organization explained that “It is more fun that way!” Lipschultz believes that their anonymity is something they feel is necessary for the way they function, while Allen thinks it protects them from corruption and lobbyists. In response to an e-mail query, MeanStreets Omaha declined to comment for this article.
So, what’s in the future for MeanStreets Omaha? “We have a LLC created now and a business plan,” they explained in their Reddit AMA. Lipschultz suspects the organization may have a long-term plan to evolve into a local news site. This hypothesis is supported by a comment by MeanStreets Omaha on their AMA: “There may be a time in the future where we are a ‘legitimate’ media entity where all will be revealed.”
Find MeanStreets Omaha on Twitter and Facebook at @MeanStreetsOMA. Visit meanstreetsoma.com for more information.
This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.