I’ve been following Amit Varma’s blog India Uncut. It and other blogs did excellent work in gathering information after the Mumbai bombings on 11 July. So I was puzzled that the Indian government blocked access to many blogs just days later. (I was pleased that typepad.com was considered worth blocking, along with blogspot.com and Geocities). It was as if the British government had decided, in June 1940 after Dunkirk, that now was the time to get rid of those little boats that pose such a security risk.
It turns out that the situation was more complicated: the Indian government had asked the ISPs to block a dozen blogs that they said supported terrorist activities, and the ISPs over-reacted by blocking everything. The government wasn’t even aware that they had blocked thousands of blogs, not 12 (it was said that all bloggers on a platform share an IP address – is that true?). The more dedicated blog readers soon found a way around the block through a site in Pakistan (the irony of this was not lost on Indian bloggers). After a few days the block was sorted out, but it leaves some questions: whether blogs can be easily blocked, whether they should be blocked when they have inflammatory material (or whether it is better to have such material in a public and easily searchable place), whether other countries will try this sort of censorship in the name of security.
But I want to go back to the kind of work India Uncut and others did for a couple days. I first became aware of the serious uses of blogs and wikis after the Southeast Asian Tsunami in 2004. They proved their value again after the 7 July London Bombings and Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. Blogs and wikis are ideally suited to such emergencies because they
- can be set up quickly (broadcast or press reporters take a while to get there)
- are updatable (newspapers work around daily deadlines, and even 24-hour rolling news comes back to the story slowly in the cycle of news)
- allow for comments so that they can be corrected quickly (important when there are so many rumours circulating)
- have people reporting from all over (broadcast and press news is limited to the few places where they have correspondents)
- are big (so they can include as much information as is available in text or image or video)
- are searchable (not sorted by the hierarchy of newspaper or broadcast news agendas, favouring the famous places, elite persons, and most horrific photos)
In fact, blogs seem to work against almost everything we teach as ‘news values’ in media studies courses: since there’s no defined audience and no limitation on space, readers can be left to search for the information they value, perhaps the name of someone they are worried about, or pictures of a street. They allow for comment in the discussions afterwards, and they allow for metacomments on other reports and on reporting in general. There is a downside to this: blogs can also become channels for rumours and misinformation. In the days after the emergency, the traditional news media get better and better, as they begin to make sense of what has happened, while the blogs flake off into various detailed strands that may interest only a few people. But the messy look of a blog during an emergency may be a truer text in some ways than the big photo and headline of a newspaper (for a typical US example from the day).
India Uncut may give us some idea of how an emergency is conveyed in the style of a blog. Amit Varma’s usual posting is in what might be called ‘Instapundit links’ (I’ll come up with a better name for this), with just a heading and just a phrase suggesting some sort of stance on the linked material. He sometimes quotes a bit, to focus on some particularly outrageous or amusing aspect of the story, but usually one has to click the link, and the wit arises from the dialogue he sets up with some text that was created for another purpose. All this back an forth is dropped in the emergency, and he provides something more like a news aggregator, grouping together different sources of information as they appear.
Here’s the first of his posts:
The present tense, the crossing out and updating, the note with the names of stations, the gradually added details, the elliptical notes (‘More later’), all convey a sense of the uncertainty of this information. His comment on broadcast news is to criticize it for fitting this event into a stereotypical format, providing a false sense of certainty. (I was also annoyed with the BBC radio reporting the next day, pressing interviewees to give their opinions on which group had planted the bombs).
The posting is updated through the day, leading finally to a posting at 4 am the next day that comments on the confusions about reports of exact locations, lists Indian and British news sources and a Flickr group for pictures, lists blogs, ad finally gives a blog address for updated information about tracing survivors and others affected by the blasts. Then, the next day, he signs off, and goes back to his usual blog.
By the way, Varma's list took me to some other interesting blog comments on the bombs, including Sepia Mutiny, Desipundit, Ultrabrown, and CuriousGawker (who's in Philadelphia, and has a funny response to US right-wing blogger Hugh Hewitt).