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The earth moved and all I got was this lousy button

The earthquake, such as it was, hit Toronto at about 1:45 p.m.

At 2, Matthew Blackett, who had been thinking about ways to merchandise breaking news, realized that his moment had come. By 2:30, the publisher of the successful local magazine, Spacing, haddesigned a little button, depicting a vibrating CN Tower, above the words, "I survived the quake!"

By 4 p.m., he'd had 400 manufactured by an obliging shop a few blocks over and was advertising the heck out of them. By 6, they were online and in local stores. They sold out. That same evening, the Internet was disgorging pictures of my friends, proudly wearing commemorative buttons that commemorated a five-hour old event.

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"I should have been more proactive," Mr. Blackett told me the next day. "We could have had them in Ottawa, too!"

I've come to enjoy days like this, days on which something dramatic happens, and the Internet bursts into flames. It's a time of disruption and opportunity. People scramble, people invent, and every time it happens, the Internet seems to pick up a new trick.

In this instance, the event was the most Torontonian of earthquakes: polite, self-important and mostly harmless. Nothing gives our new-media apparatus a workout like a natural disaster. A natural disaster that's not remotely disastrous is even better, since it relieves all involved of any need to be sensitive or pious.

What staggered me most was the speed with which it all unfolded. The first confirmations that it was, in fact, an earthquake that made my house go precipitously wobbly arrived literally simultaneously. Twitter lit up like a brain full of neurons.

In the first five minutes, the boundaries of the quake had been sketched out. You could tell where it was and where it wasn't. Messages started to trickle in from across the country.

"Don't go all Trawna drama on this one, 'k?" advised my cousin in Edmonton.

Indeed, there were no fewer than 65,000 earthquake-related mentions on social networks in the hour after it happened, according to Thornley Fallis Communications, a marketing agency that keeps its eye on these things. (Interestingly, the earthquake was mentioned more on Twitter than the ubiquitous Facebook.)

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There followed, in that first quarter-hour, the ritual mad scramble of online journalists to see whose newspaper could get mention of the quake up on their site first. This noble pursuit was dampened only somewhat by the fact that news of a local earthquake had already been broken by the earthquake itself, in the form of an earthquake.

And so it was no more than 20 minutes until, the event over and the news digested, the conversation turned to self-reflexive humour. People started making earthquake jokes. Within a couple of hours, other people started collecting earthquake jokes into blog posts about earthquake jokes. Newspapers wrote articles about blogs watching earthquake jokes. I tweeted out an earthquake joke, too. I woke up the next morning to hear it being repeated on the CBC morning show.

In the day that followed, Matt Blackett sold 1,000 pins, at $2 apiece, PayPal accepted. (It should be noted that Mr. Blackett knew what he was doing. Spacing has made a cottage industry of selling buttons with subway stop names on them.) Another young entrepreneur had whipped up "I survived the Toronto earthquake" T-shirts online.

And just like that, in bizarrely sped-up fashion, the city had gone through all the phases of shock: stupor, confusion, recognition, in jokes, merchandising.

By the time Friday rolled around, the local conversation turned back to the G20 conference. The collective processing of the earthquake was finished in hours. Been there, done that, got the button.

Over the years, online citizens have learned to collectively check in and report stories like this, the kind that affect thousands or millions, using Wikipedia and later, social networks. Later came rapid-response memes, jokes and parodies. Online journalists learned the importance of the hustle and the news alert.

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And now we've come one step further still: instant commemorative merchandise. It will even apply in scenarios that aren't as inherently amusing as a few million Torontonians looking puzzled as they vibrate for 30 seconds. The tenor of the merchandise will change, but they'll find a way to make it work.

You can't pin the acceleration of this process on technology alone. It took independent actors like Mr. Blackett - actors who had the expertise and resources to make something on a moment's notice - to make good on the promise of our self-organizing social networks.

But on these networks, ideas are contagious. Thanks to the initiative shown by a few people this time, you can bet that others will be quick on the draw with the insta-bake news-driven merchandise the next time an event comes along that grabs the Internet's attention.

There are days when you're just sitting there, wondering what to do with yourself, and then there's an earthquake. Next time, you'll have one more option to consider.

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