Mumbai Bombings and Social Media

There will be time for more thoughtful analysis later. For now I wanted my students in particular to check out how today’s bombings in Mumbai are playing out in various social media.

I suggest you search Twitter using hashtags such as #MumbaiBlasts, #Mumbai, and — believe it or not — #here2help. You should also look for other video and accounts on YouTube and Facebook.

And remember: this flood of messages is inevitably packed with everything from the ridiculous to the sublime, from false claims to painful and urgent truths. When I suggest that you get a feel for the role that social media can play in events like these, I am not making any claim about accuracy. They simply are a fact of global social life in the 21st century.

The sad fact is these types of tragedies do seem to reveal so many of the potential uses and abuses, opportunities and dangers, of social media. And every so often, some truly profound development finds its way through the confusion and crowd of the digital world,  and quickly commands global attention.

The trick will be for all of us to give up our passivity and see the flood of messages from social media as a resource that requires us to actively be our own editors — to evaluate, curate, edit, and ultimately accept or reject what we discover.

It’s worth a look.

Tweets From the Firing Squad


The pervasiveness of Twitter is no longer a story. But the types of people who use it, and the settings from which they tweet, continues to amaze.

This, I admit, is one I never expected.

I am still thinking about how I feel about the tweet and its circumstances. I don’t, though, have to think about the death penalty, which I oppose on every ground that some use to support it.

In fact, the absence of an empirically verifiable deterrent effect of the death penalty on homicide rates was, I think, lesson #1 or #2  in criminology grad school. I don’t know if it was before or after the lesson about the extent to  which the mass media distorts what actual statistics tell us about the frequency and  characteristics of specific types of  crime.

A Treat: Conan O’Brien Appears at Google and You Tube HQ


Enjoy a hilarious improvised 48 minute “talk” by Conan yesterday at Google HQ.

Aside from the biting comedy, the clip includes a brilliant explanation about how, when precluded by his contract from performing, he turned to the Internet — Twitter, actually — and went viral.

The Arguments About Blogs and Twitters and Tweets Are Interesting, But Irrelevant; They Have Come of Age


Something extremely important is happening at this very moment and it is worth taking a look.

Despite all the past debate about the blogosphere — sometimes heated — among conventional journalists, bloggers, and plain old twitterers , the New York Times is putting together some extraordinary breaking coverage of the events in Iran using just these types of “questionable” sources.

These  include Flickr, Twitter,  social networks, instant messaging, You Tube, and numerous blogs. The Times coverage appears in the Lede blog on the home page of the Internet edition.

I have always listened when Bill Keller, Times Managing Editor, and other journalists have offered their sometimes biting critique of the blogosphere:  Who are these bloggers? What are their sources? How can they be trusted?  These are fair questions.

But forget those  arguments for a second and look at the Times itself. The fact is that, when events like those in Iran occurred,   experienced journalists immediately  looked to all these fragmented sources and knew just what to do with them.  They collated them, questioned them, linked to them, accepted some,  rejected others,  and tried to fit them into  a larger puzzle.  It worked.

One big kvetch of conventional journalists has been that the blogosphere has no fact-checkers and editors.  But the complaint has essentially fizzled. The Times proved a basic point:

They are still the editors!

No one forced them to quote from the blogs and the tweets of students caught in the midst of demonstrations.  They did it carefully,  and with the clear belief that “the amateurs” helped fill-in the details of the complex story they were covering.

And what do you know? The amateurs didn’t overrun quality journalism. They didn’t replace it. They became an indispensable part of the mix.

In the end, all these new-fangled news sources from the street turned out to be  not all that different from the old stodgy, official sources: You look at them, judge their validity, decide when they can be embedded in a larger story, and either use them or not use them. Of course, you have to be cautious, very cautious, but  —  in the end — you are still the editor.

Tombs of Negligence: The Children of Sichuan


juyuan earthquake


Nothing gets me hyperventilating more quickly than rich countries allowing citizens lacking power and privilege to suffer in ways that are, at least to some extent,  preventable. 


Believe me, I am well aware of my own country’s shameful treatment of the powerless. But the cruelties we reserve for the hungry, the uninsured, the disabled, and the poor are old news. I already watched the horrors of Katrina unfold.  


But I honestly can’t say that, before the age of the Internet, I fully appreciated the seemingly limitless examples of wealthy societies that seem incapable of providing the most basic protections to those who might die without them.  


My favorite recent example of journalism shining a light on suffering amidst wealth was George Packer’s shattering portrait in The New Yorker of the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. If you have a strong stomach, read the piece and see the quality of life that the world’s 12th largest oil producing country reserves for its poorest citizens.


And now the Sichuan earthquake.


This week, virtually every new media technology brought us horrifying details of how the Chinese economic miracle had apparently not been quite miraculous enough to insure basic standards of safe school construction.  


In fact, so-called micro-blogging (Twitter, etc.) – which I now am ashamed to have occasionally ridiculed as nothing more than knowing when a friend decides to make a salami sandwich — came into its own and provided a tidal wave of instant details about the extent of death and destruction in Sichuan province.  In real time, we heard the cries of grief and the rage of Chinese citizens at a government that had allowed thousands of children to die in tombs of negligence, arrogance and shoddy construction. Who knew that cheap construction – specifically the use of concrete without steel reinforcement — is so widespread in China that it has its own nickname – “Tofu building?”


Richard Spencer, reporting from Sichuan province for The Telegraph, tells a chilling story of promises broken and young lives lost. Faced with this tidal wave of revelations, Chinese officials were forced to promise a rigorous investigation resulting in severe punishment for those at fault.


 A child is buried under the rubble at the earthquake-hit Beichuan County, Sichuan Province, May 13, 2008. China poured more troops into the earthquake-ravaged province of Sichuan on Wednesday to speed up the search for survivors as time ran out for thousands of people buried under rubble and mud. Picture taken May 13, 2008.


Smooth. Really smooth. And straight out of the authoritarian propaganda playbook: We’ll root out those at fault and punish them. “If quality problems do exist in the school buildings, those found responsible will be dealt with severely,” said Housing and Urban and Rural Construction Minister Jiang Weixin.


Excuse me Minister Jiang Weixin: Is there any chance you might be one of “those found responsible?”


I just had a sickening thought: Given the authoritarian impulse to quickly cover up crimes and negligence, at least Jiang Weixin will probably have those schools fully rebuilt before the reconstruction of New Orleans consists of anything more than Bush administration photo-ops.

Earthquakes, Catastrophe, and the Digital Age

The tragic earthquake in China has provided an extraordinary example of how a variety of new digital tools and technologies have dramatically changed the way we perceive, learn about, and – through media and culture — socially construct the narrative and reality of catastrophe.

The natural disaster has caused overwhelming and widespread damage in a fairly remote area of Sichuan province and revealed that many public buildings were not built to withstand an earthquake of this intensity. Many of the dead were in schools that collapsed and, according to reports, left thousands of students and teachers trapped and dead.


What I wanted to point out is that, alongside the tragedy and obviously deficient infrastructure, a fairly elaborate and advanced digital culture thrives. Consequently, while some cell phone service has been interrupted, an almost instantaneous and extensive use of various digital tools has unfolded.

Start with this link to the Poynter Center for an early rundown of how horrible, natural disasters unfold in the age of cell phones, Twitter, Youtube, blogs, streaming audio and video, video sharing, news aggregators, social networking and everything else.

I have seen some interesting examples today of how Twitter in particular has emerged as a major source of news and information for concerned friends and family members in China and around the world.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that, in pointing out deficiencies in Chinese infrastructure, I had forgotten, or will ever forget, the race and class based infrastructure deficiencies existing here in the United States that were very much a part of why and how Katrina happened.