“Taken late night Nov 26 at Colaba. Arranged in the order
I took the snaps as I visited this place – 15 mins after I heard the
sound. 2 mins walking distance from my house.”
In the first disorienting moments of the attacks on Mumbai, when even
rumour and falsehood were hampered by the lateness of the hour, amateur
photographer Vinu Ranganathan took his camera to the streets outside
his Colaba residence, and took pictures. They would come to define the
attacks for all those staying up trying to make sense of the sudden
reports on television, from teams setting up at different points of
the city, and for a global audience to whom news of the shootouts dropped
bizarrely into the middle of a Wednesday morning or afternoon, with
no acknowledgment from the international media.
Vinu’s pictures went up in the middle of the night on his account at
Flickr, a site that allows users to upload and share photos. At a time
when nothing seemed certain, not even the imminent arrival of a newspaper
on Thursday morning, the pictures were viewed, linked and forwarded
around the world in a way that made Vinu something of an overnight hero.
“With the orange hues and human police chains blocking crowds from entering
streets, the photos gave a sense early on of the pandemonium during
the early hours of the terrorist attacks,” wrote Wired.com in an appraisal
of his work. In an interview with Wired, Vinu confirmed that he was
not, in fact, a photojournalist – he works as a business development
manager with a local technology firm.
As the night wore on, Twitter.com, a micro-blogging site that allows
users to post brief messages of up to 140 characters on their accounts
and leave replies of the same length to other users’ messages, started
to see spurts of activity as Twitter users began to “tweet” news to
the site for others to see. In what seemed like a flash, the account
@mumbaiupdates was created and began to collate messages to provide
a continuous stream of information to readers. When journalist Amy Gahran,
who tracked both the attacks and the media behaviour surrounding it,
got to the bottom of this account, she found that it was set up by Mark
Bao, a high-school junior from Boston, who was nowhere near Mumbai at
the time. Bao’s final update on the account, a request “to all live
updaters – please stop tweeting about # Mumbai police and military operations,”
was picked up and broadcast by the BBC in their live updates on the
Mumbai Help, a blog originally set up during the bomb blasts that crippled
transport and communication around the city on July 11, 2006, sprang
into action within minutes of the attacks becoming public knowledge,
compiling a database of helplines, information, lists of emergency services,
and a forum for commenters outside the city to try and locate loved
ones with the help of volunteers who offered to try mobile numbers and
email addresses. As the hours passed, the blog began to collate and
provide lists of the injured, and eventually the dead. Days after the
event, it hosted announcements of vigils and prayer meetings all over
Vinu’s Flickr stream, Mark’s Twitter account, and Mumbai Help are three
aspects of an entire corpus of facts, analysis and reaction that now
exists on the Internet, running parallel to the sixty hours or more
of live television coverage of the Mumbai attacks. Media analysts and
Internet experts are now seeing this body of work as a watershed in
citizen journalism and alternate media.
It is actually the latest and largest demonstration of the functions
of Internet connectivity during disaster. In 2001, when the World Trade
Center was demolished by terrorists, communications on the Internet
were still primarily interpersonal, and the world was in the midst of
the massive failure of the dotcom boom. By 2004, when the Indian Ocean
tsunami wrecked havoc along the coasts of South-east Asia, the medium
was better prepared. Blogging services and communication tools had begun
to penetrate urban areas around the developing world. Suddenly, local
information became globally available. By posting databases of helplines
and lists of victims and survivors, providing reportage from on the
ground that was available only in a limited way through newspapers and
television, and co-ordinating fundraising, bloggers in the region personalised
and speeded up the flow of information around the world. Through the
work of these intrepid posters, many of them volunteers who just took
trains down to affected areas to participate in aid work, someone in
Brazil or Japan could contribute money, or help pass along messages
to worried relatives, within minutes of an appeal going out.
Down the years, Internet participation in crisis awareness has shaded
into the areas of journalism and opinion forming. Every passing year
has furthered the social media revolution, thanks to evolving technology
and the growing web of services connecting friends and friends-of-friends
with each other. Twitter, a micro-blogging service that began life in
2006, experienced its first major moment at the center of a news storm
during the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, when shock, grief and anger
mingled with news updates and fact to reflect a spectrum of public opinion
that was too broad and fluid to be accommodated within a newspaper or
In early November, as Barack Obama swept to victory in an election that
had been contested on an unprecedented scale in the virtual thickets
of blogs and social networks as much as it had in America’s towns and
countryside, the social media phenomenon seemed to reach a pinnacle
of connectivity. Millions around the world ‘donated’ Facebook status
updates to endorsing Obama, tweeted continuous Election Day updates
to their Twitter accounts, and watched his seventeen-minute long victory
speech on YouTube, and the election entered social consciousness as
a truly global event as nothing had before.
While coverage of the Mumbai attacks was mercifully less long-drawn,
even if it felt like eternity for those sixty excruciating hours, it
was just as intense, and had an even greater impact on those following
it. For many people within the city and around India, there was little
space to breathe or think as TV coverage of the attacks battered their
consciousness for sixty hours without a break. Personal details and
relevant information were glaringly absent at first, and heavily filtered
in subsequent hours. From the discombobulation of this experience, web
coverage offered users an alternative – not only to listen to different
voices, points of view and facts, but also to participate in the process
of gathering and disseminating information.
Journalist Mindy McAdams (mindymcadams.com) identified the event coverage
on Twitter and blogs as an example of several truths about the nature
of modern journalism. We now know that breaking news is often online
as soon as or even before it will be on television, and that the difference
in the time taken by both media to get to the starting point of an event
will only lengthen as more and more people get online. Cellphones, with
their messaging facilities and cameras, have become a primary tool of
citizen journalism. Most Mumbaikars did not hear of the attacks because
they flipped channels randomly at 10.30 in the night, although a significant
number did; they heard through the phone calls and texts from friends,
and in turn alerted their other friends by forwarding messages. On the
Internet, this private stream of information went public.
As the hours passed, more and more people went online for two reasons:
one, because they were alerted to the news and wanted to look for more
than was available on television, and two, because they wanted to participate
and express themselves. Internet engagement is significantly different
from watching television; even when you are watching a video or reading
an article online, analysts observe, you are in ‘lean-forward’ mode,
engaging with your content, as opposed to the passive, ‘lie-back’ mode
in which most people watch television. As the shock of the event began
to register, sleepless Mumbaikars and horrified news-watchers around
the world began to log on to their systems and try and piece together
a narrative of what was happening, not just to get the facts right,
but to make sense of the facts that were coming in. Early on Thursday
morning, blogger Amit Varma of India Uncut wrote in with an update on
a night spent in Colaba just as the attacks began. Varma’s post and
updates were picked up almost immediately to form part of a credible,
coherent media narrative around the world; his post was quoted in the
New York Times, and led to an interview on Larry King Live as part of
King’s Mumbai coverage.
With all this, did blogs and Twitter replace the voice of the old media?
Some users on the Internet seemed to think so: others did not. The participatory,
fragmented nature of a conversation that received continuous, random
and spontaneous input from unnumbered sources limited its usefulness.
“In fact,” said Tim Malbon on media blog Made By Many (madebymany.co.uk)
“the only conversations in any way ‘like’ [the busiest period of Twitter
use] are shouty drunken lock-ins, the 11.45 booze-train burger queue
at London Bridge Rail Station on a Thursday night, or a football riot.”
Because authoritative information was unavailable, more people logged
on to find out what was happening – and more people took advantage of
the situation to update in haste, in the throes of emotion, and in error.
Malbon estimated that “six out of ten tweets” were pure noise, not contributing
in any useful way to the event-stream.
“Sometimes I think about all this as a giant virtual switchboard manned
by volunteers, willing and able to help,” commented JP Rangaswami (confusedofcalcutta.com)
in a blog post analyzing the response. “We should be thinking about
how we can improve all this.”
And we are. Since the first moment when the Internet broke news ahead
of a mainstream channel (the Drudge Report’s post on the Monica Lewinsky
scandal in 1997), the medium has evolved to a point where it is dovetailing
with television and newspaper journalism in a way that allows each to
benefit from the others’ strengths.
But for all its strengths as a legitimate source of information, perhaps
the Internet’s greatest benefit to the majority during those three days
and nights was simply in its ability to connect human beings to each
other. In the midst of the eerie silence of the city’s roads and the
shrill noise of the television, logging on to read others’ questions
allowed many people to give voice to their own. In each other’s Facebook
updates and blog posts, we could read ourselves. Through the random
synergy of Internet chatter in the background of one of the biggest
shocks of our lives, we could begin, not only to absorb the shock, but
to speak of it. For a city whose people are its first and most important
building blocks, it echoed our own way of life.
FIVE DEFINITIVE WEB RESOURCES
DURING THE ATTACKS
- The Lede: The New York Times’ news blog outdid itself with round-the-clock updates from their journalists on the ground Blackberrying in news, feature writers providing context and history, and photos, resources and comments. Sober, clear-eyed and reliable, The Lede not only bettered other cutting-edge alternative media outlets (like The Guardian online), but also the coverage from most Indian news sources online. Those blog entries still read as a valuable record and comment on those days of terror. [thelede.blogs.nytimes.com, entries between November 28 and December 2, 2008.]
- Global Voices: Picked up almost immediately on the story and functioned as a stop for readers to catch up on news, largely through blog updates from around the world. [globalvoicesonline.org/specialcoverage/mumbai-india-blasts-2008/]
- Mumbaihelp: Set up as an information page for those hunting for emergency services during the floods of 2005, this blog resurrected itself during the bomb blasts in 2006, and once again proved to be an invaluable centralised resource for those looking for medical services, helplines, personal communication and more. [mumbaihelp.blogspot.com]
- Vinu Ranganathan’s Flickr stream: Until the next morning’s newspapers, these photographs of the scenes around Colaba, snapped on the spur of the moment as Vinu heard shots outside his home and took his camera outside, seemed like the only available still images of Wednesday night’s horrors. The photos became an international resource and a definitive part of the public record of the event. [www3.flickr.com/photos/vinu/]
- Wikipedia: The Wikipedia page on the attacks of November 26 was a lesson in the creation of a reliable, updated report in a crisis situation. As a community of Wiki users received information, read, absorbed, wrote and corrected each other’s work on the page, virtually in real time, the picture that emerged was a remarkable example of the power of crowds. [wikipedia.org/wiki/26_November_2008_Mumbai_attacks/]
Let me declare my interests. I love this city. If anything, the
last two days have made me realise the depth of that love. I have no
guns and grenades to defend it with, but I can fight for its spirit.
It sounds like a cliché, but clichés also happen to be true. I can’t
wait to see a stadium in Bombay reverberating to the sounds of cricket.
I will be there.
- Sambit Bal, cricinfo.com
Cancers are born within, they are a mutation of your own that because
it comes from within threatens stealthily. Like cancer, the terrorism
India faces has the potential to weaken the set of values that keep
us standing up against it. Cancer rots from within. It eats at us slowly.
It saps our strength. And someday we shall succumb.
Wait. No. It’s at this point that I’m going to cut off the analogy.
Because we can do something about this.
– Udayan Tripathi, sticksandstonesblog.com
The kind folk at the Gordon House Hotel did three important things
for us last night. One, they ushered us in when the gunshots began,
assuring us that we’d be safer inside than outside. Two, they got us
a room for the night, and extra mattresses and so on. Three, in the
morning, they refused to accept payment for the room, insisting that
we were their guests and this was their duty.
- Amit Varma, indiauncut.com
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