January 16, 2006

Blogs will help keep MSM honest

In the seventh article of the series "Hum Blogistani!" Peter Griffin talks about the life-changing experience with SEA-EAT and predicts that blogs will not replace big media but complement it instead.

Mumbai based Media Consultant Peter is a freelance writer and prolific blogger (there is more to him than we can accommodate here). He blogs at Zigzackly. The online edition of his TOI column Mousetrap can be read here.

Hum Blogistani!

hy, you wonder, is this chap writing a piece in this series? He isn't a pioneer blogger, or an A-lister, he doesn't have legions of adoring fans (or even the type that love to hate him). He doesn't even make it for Best Tagline. Fercryinoutloud, the loser doesn't even have comments disabled.

It's pretty simple, really. Debashish only knows I exist because of the collablogs I have been part of. Very probably for the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog (SEA-EAT), which finds itself nominated in two categories this year. (And while I'm at it, consider this a plug for your vote.)

So, not to worry, I won't test your patience with my usual boring pronouncements on the state of the blogosphere. Instead, I'll just waffle on for a bit on the stuff that Debashish asked me to write about: collablogs and disaster relief blogging.

I'll start with some excerpts from an essay I'm writing on the experience. It will make its appearance on my blog in due course, and it sets the background for the preachy bits afterwards.

SEA-EAT was, for me, a life-changing experience. I had experimented, with moderate success, with collablogs* before, with Caferati, set up for my online writers' community, and as a contributor to what was originally Desi Media Bitch and then became well-known as CSF.

Just prior to the Christmas of 2004, Rohit Gupta had this great idea of growing Desi Media Bitch beyond the 'desi' label, and we had set about inviting bloggers from neighbouring countries to join in on what we had planned as a sort of media-bashing without borders fortnight (hence Chiennes Sans Frontieres). So you might say I was rather evangelistic about collaboration by the time the earthquake and tsunami happened.

However, the size of the disaster shocked all of us, froze us (well, I guess; it certainly paralysed me) as those terrible pictures flooded our screens. It was only the next day that my brains unclogged enough to be realise that a blog could possibly help. A few SMSes and phone calls later, I set up the template, Rohit made the first proper post, and we had begun mail bombing our address books with pleas for help. Dina Mehta was one of the first names we both came up. Thanks to her and Rohit being contributors to Worldchanging, a highly respected group blog, they were able to write about what we were doing there. Which was noticed by BoingBoing. And the traffic to our site surged almost immediately. (It is pertinent to note that Rohit, Dina and I had never met face-to-face at that point.) Around the same time, I had mailed Prem Panicker, Managing Editor at Rediff in the USA (yet another online-only friend) and almost immediately, all Rediff's coverage began to feature a link to our blog. Our viewership boomed from the few hundred people we had mailed directly to thousands every hour. We were flooded with offers to help from all over the world. People who wanted to blog with us, others who sent us information, linked to us, promoted us. And, of course, people asking how they could help directly.

There were news organisations who had the infrastructure to do hard news better than we could. What was missing was information about the NGOs and aid organisations working on the ground. That helped us hastily define what we were going to do: “News and information about resources, aid, donations and volunteer efforts.” We set some ground rules: no politics, no opinions, steer away from controversy, just find out about and link to aid efforts.

The next day, the New York Times and the Guardian in the UK had written about us, and put our URL in their articles, shortly after, the BBC linked to
us too
. These, and many other news organisations across the world cited us as an authoritative source for information. Including - high point! - the search giant Google itself, who not only linked to us from their dedicated Tsunami page (which, in an unprecedented move for Google, was linked to off their search home page), but also, through the efforts of one of our members who had friends in Mountain View, guaranteed us unlimited bandwidth, thus ensuring that the site wouldn't go down. Traffic was overwhelming - a million plus visitors in the first week.

I won't continue with the blow-by-blow (you can read these eloquent descriptions by Din Mehta and Bala Pitchandi, and as I said, I'm writing about it in detail myself), but I will tell you that SEA-EAT model has been used, with modifications, and varying degrees of success, in the other disasters that have hit our planet this year (MumbaiHelp and Cloudburst Mumbai, KatrinaHelp and RitaHelp, QuakeHelp had many of the same core group behind them; ChennaiHelp did an excellent job of self-organising too). And I'll also confess that I have seeded a few other collablogs, some with less, erm, humanitarian goals.

Anyway, what did I, not the smartest cookie in the jar by any stretch of the imagination, learn from all this?

  • One, that blogs can make a difference. That blogs can be more than the medium of choice of the self-obsessed. That the linking and research that the better bloggers all do, the ethics that guide them, when powered by a huge need to make a difference, to just reach out and help, can make for a pretty powerful vehicle.
  • Two, that collaboration rocks. That a group of people with common cause can do bigger things together than they could do separately, even in a world as staunchly individualistic as the blogosphere.
  • Three, that bloggers (or at least the ones that I have had the privilege of working with) are very creative people. Even without inventing anything new, the team made some pretty damn innovative use of existing technology. Not just the “blog as collaborative disaster relief tool” bit. Stuff like using Yahoo IM chat as a war room cum conference room, SMS as an information system when other communication is shot to hell, Flickr tags as missing persons notifiers, a Skype number staffed by people in three continents as a virtual call centre. Obvious in hindsight, like so many of the best solutions are, but hey, we did it first.
  • And four (this is the really preachy bit), that people are essentially good, though it can take a disaster to make that clear.

That seemed like a good place to end, but alas for you, Debashish also foolishly asked me to include a section on where I saw the Indian blogosphere going, and which red-blooded blogger can pass up an excuse to pontificate? I have no rocket science to offer you, but here goes anyway.

I think a few bloggers will be able to make a living off their blogs. They will largely be, I'll wager, truly superior writers, specialists who have built up and nurtured an audience. And collablogs might make some Ad Sense money too.

And there's a flip side. There will be more and more attempts to turn blogs into cash cows. More corporate blogs, more splogs, more comment spam innovations, more paid-for blogging.

Blogs will not replace big media. They will complement it, they will help keep MSM honest, and in return, after all the hype is over, be an invaluable resource for gauging the pulse of the community.

And here's the big one. It is inevitable that computers and net connections will become more affordable, and that will bring more people into the blog world. But when user interfaces in Indian languages become ubiquitous, that, my friends, is when you will see a boom in the Indian blogosphere that will make the explosion we saw last year look like a wet firecracker.

So, in a few years, you will find me leaving comments on this site when the categories are announced, demanding that one be set up for
Best Indic Blog - English.

*That's a term I believe I kind of invented, in an article in the magazine GT.

1 comment:

arjun said...

The SEA-EAT background story is awesome. You guys have done some awesome work. Though blogs might never replace mainstream news, SEA-EAT gave them their place in the sun. Blogs are important in the democratic process and will become more and more important in the way information and news travels in the world. You guys are up there!