For many people, the recent and tragic Mumbai terrorist attacks had one unintended consequence: the coming of age of Twitter. As the FT put it, Twitter Turns Serious With Messages of Life and Death.
There’s a lot of good coverage out there in the blogosphere: Dan Gillmor, who first got me interested in the concept of “citizen media” sometime in 2002, makes two critical points about the difference between social media and MSM in his post Wikipedia as Vital Breaking News Source: one, the significantly higher frequency of updates in social media and two, the incredible richness of context provided via the the technique of linking. I guess Dan is the doyen of citizen media, he now runs the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Incidentally, if you’re interested in the space where social media touches journalism, you could learn a lot just by visiting Dan’s Center For Citizen Media blog. His blogroll, headlined Citizen Media Types, is an excellent place to extend your knowledge; I read many of those people regularly.
One of them is Amy Gahran, who touches on a very important subject, responsible tweeting, in her blog Contentious.com. Rumours. You should read her piece “Tracking a Rumour: Indian Government, Twitter and Common Sense”. She also links to Mayank Dhingra’s Social Media: Handle With Care piece, also worth reading. What they have to say reinforces Journalism 101 tenets: the criticality of source verification; the importance of objectivity; avoidance of hatred-inducing subjects; the need for brevity.
Mindy McAdams, in her blog Teaching Online Journalism, covers some useful topics in Twitter, Mumbai and 10 facts about Journalism Now. Of particular importance is the role of the mobile phone, specifically the class of device that can cover both cellular as well as wireless. Her latest post, Breaking News Online: A short History and Timeline, is also worth reading, as is the Are These The Biggest Moments in Journalism-Blogging History post from the Online Journalism blog which she refers to.
Dina Mehta has been covering the events from an ethnographer’s perspective, combining her sociology and anthropology disciplines, and is well worth reading as well, both on Twitter as well as in the blogosphere. Whatever information I received first hand, I tended to filter it through the lens of reading Dina’s tweets. It helped.
We’ve also seen a bunch of tools get refined and improved during the Mumbai crisis: examples are: Tweet Grid (which I found incredibly useful, the ability to receive topic-specific Twitter update feeds); Cover It Live also got some traction over the last few days. Even Blog Talk Radio, something I really like, got in on the act with SAJA HQ.
I’ve been through a few crises in my time, with different scales and personal impacts. What I’ve noticed is the following:
- Crises attract rubberneckers, people who come along to watch, people who want to know what’s going on. Crowds form.
- Because of this, crises attract extremists of various hues and styles. Politicians are the most common, nationalists and fundamentalists are not far behind. Sometimes all three merge into one person, a truly ugly phenomenon.
- Rumour dominates. There’s a lot of Chinese Whispering going on, as the crowds grow and the extremists exploit.
- All this comes in the way of three groups of people desperately trying to do their jobs: the security services, the emergency services and the media.
And in the midst of all this we have the people really involved, the victims of the crisis. Fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Human beings.
The stories are about them. Not about politics or nationalism or fundamentalism. Not about tools and techniques.
And that’s why the use of social media in crisis management intrigues me, excites me. We’re able to join hands and actually do things for the people involved, leaving aside the three-ring circus going on.
What kind of things? Here’s a list of some of the things I witnessed in Twitter these past days:
- People used Twitter to find other people, loved ones, relatives, friends, acquaintances. They provided status updates to others who needed that information. Person to person communications. Hospital lists. Sadly, even lists of those that perished. A classic crowdsource-able activity, reducing the workload on emergency services personnel. Most of the time, the tool used was a mobile phone with a camera.
- People used Twitter to raise awareness of the need for resources. Blood. Food. Money. Shelter.
- Twitter became a go-to-place for important telephone numbers, particularly for overseas contact numbers.
- Twitter also performed one other critical function: the democratic nature of the beast meant that the voices of extremists and rumour-mongerers was drowned out.
The two-way participative nature of social media, coupled with the always-on affordable ubiquity of the tools used, changes the game. This is not about news and journalism. It’s about participation. Someone in Buenos Aires or Budapest or Birmingham or Butte can actually help someone in Mumbai, by carrying out searches, quashing rumours, pointing to information sources, helping put people in touch with each other.
Sometimes I think about all this as a giant virtual switchboard manned by volunteers, willing and able to help. We should be thinking about how we can improve all this. How we can set up this virtual switchboard effectively. How we can help quash rumours. How we can take the load off the security and emergency services people.
How we can best help the people most affected. Using a variety of tools at our disposal. Including my favourite one: prayer.