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James Borton eyes the media

Tsunami bloggers in tribal news network

Despite all the available digital tools for forecasting seismic shifts at the bottom of the ocean, scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii watched helplessly as no advance communication reached the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean. As the toll of human tragedy continues to mount, Asian bloggers remain the recognized facilitators of hope and information, zealously posting their non-journalistic diaries and professional aid relief campaign missives in the aftermath of the largest earthquake in 40 years that swallowed coastlines and thousands of hardscrabble lives from Indonesia to Africa. They have forged a tribal news network.

Bloggers such as Malaysian Jeff Ooi (www.jeffooi.com) and Nanda Kishore, a contributor to sumankumar.com from Chennai, India, along with scores of others at www.worldchanging.com, are sentries on the digital frontline, examining the impact of the regional tsunami that spilled over parts of South and Southeast Asian on December 26.

The efforts of these tribal digital networks are now part of a tidal wave of integrated disaster links and information flooding the World Wide Web since the tsunami washed away family and social moorings. Their blogs appear to be renewing faith in the efficacy of technological transformation embedded in the principle of "doing the right thing". These diarists and many non-profit Asian news sites are even becoming accepted and recognized by mainstream media professionals.

"I have been incredibly impressed with the depth and breadth of coverage of the tsunami disaster by non-journalists in Asia - tourists, local residents and bloggers. Bloggers have done a remarkable job gathering all of this material, as well as pulling together aid resources and helping to connect people who are looking for missing loved ones. And even people who have never blogged before have turned to the web to share their gripping accounts and upload their photos and home video, offering a raw, unedited perspective on the human tragedy," said Jonathan Duke, publisher of CyberJournalist.net and managing producer of MSNBC.com, in an exclusive Asia Times Online interview.

Few can dispute that traditional media also have been inspired to meet the reporting challenges posed by the great wave. For example, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) joined the ranks of mainstream media now clicking into the blogosphere by publishing first-hand blog reports and images from many of these non-professional eyewitnesses.

"Together the amateurs and professional journalists have given the public an unprecedented look at a story of this magnitude," Duke told Asia Times Online.

A blog is now defined in Merriam Webster's Dictionary as a "website that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer". In light of the heroic service provided by these dedicated bloggers in informing relatives in the West about the missing, the timely and sensitive postings of photos of located orphaned children, and the call for relief action, that definition may be compassionately broadened in the near future. As 2004 ended, the world witnessed in this digital era the poignant pleas of survivors, families desperately seeking information for loved ones and disturbing images transmitted through the World Wide Web.

At the time of this Asian tragedy, and with so many challenges facing the region, the bloggers have provided a common space on which grief and charity have been fully expressed.

Kishore posted this in-your-face description from his weblog, www.sumankumar.com: "Men and women, old and young, all were running for their lives. It was a horrible sight to see. The relief workers could not attend to all the dead and all the alive. The dead were dropped and the half-alive were carried to safety ... it was a sad scene."

Paola di Maio survived the tsunamis's impact on the beach in Phuket, Thailand, and with available Internet connectivity on the island, communicated to Peter Griffin, a communications consultant in Mumbai, India, that the most pressing need was for accurate information. These Internet evangelists quickly set up the Sea-Eat blog, or The Southeast Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog, tsunamihelp.blogspot.com.

The idea resonated and spread like wildfire, or a digital tidal wave, across the wired world. With over 300,000 hits to date, the site has been driven by a desperate need to meet the global demand as a clearing house for information about where and how to send tsunami aid. It now is sustained by an army of volunteer contributors. Numerous blogs are still directing viewers to Wikipedia's Tsunami entry. There's also a comprehensive entry titled "2004 Indian Ocean earthquake", a stellar example of a collaborative record of the event.

According to Webopedia, a "hit", also called a "page hit", is the retrieval of any item, such as a page or a graphic, from a web server. For example, when a visitor calls up a web page with four graphics, that's five hits, one for the page and four for the graphics. For this reason, hits often aren't a good indication of web traffic.

Still, hits are an indicator of traffic. Australian Geoffrey Huntley, 22, at www.waveofdestruction.com, started his blog immediately after the tsunami hit. He was not prepared for the sheer amount of traffic and his server crashed many times. His site went from 39,000 page serves, a web page that has been viewed by one visitor, to over 3 million in less than 48 hours.

"It is a marvelous demonstration of the collective intelligence of humanitarian smart mobs," blogger Rohit Gupta from the www.worldchanging.com website said in an Asia Times Online interview from Bombay. According to Gupta, Sri Lankan bloggers Morquendi and LastNode are building a Short Message Service (SMS) news and alert service, where they are recruiting more citizen reporters at www.wavesofhope.org.

Blogger Nick Lewis has established a website called Emergency Action Blog, eab.smartcampaigns.com , which provides some exemplary action steps, updates on tsunami information, collected personal stories and links to aid-relief sites.

Other bloggers, such as John Lebkowsky (polycot.com), are even more committed to discussions on what went wrong since the world knows all too painfully that there was no available tsunami detection information in the Indian Ocean and apparently no one at the warning center had the telephone numbers of their neighboring scientists in Indonesia, Malaysia and eastern India.

"We are truly witnessing the tribal word-of-mouth network return as a dominant medium in a heavily connected world. Blogs are a natural extension of that," added Malaysian blogger Jack Tuan from Penang, an area also hit by the killer tsunami.

Mumbai-based Dina Mehta, a determined contributor to Sea-Eat, told Asia Times Online: "I think we are a working model for the future - not just restricted to disasters and relief programs, but designed to change the way people communicate, collaborate and organize for work or play. Across corporations and media. And they are listening."

Sea-Eat's statistics are available by clicking on a small button at the bottom of the right panel of the blog, the "site meter". At 4pm in Thailand on Tuesday, it registered 933,588 visits and 1,166,131 page views. It was launched on Monday after the tsunami hit.

"Five days since we started, we have had over 450,000 visitors to the blog, so much press, 60-odd contributors, many more volunteers," Mehta told Asia Times Online. "We have also linked to a Sea-Eat wiki for easy search on resources, and to another wiki for volunteers. [A wiki is a website that can be edited by users]. The wikis are works in progress ... It's nice to see lots of learning on social software over the last two years implemented here; linking blog to wiki and wiki to blog, working with the limitations of using Blogger (though Google has been so so kind and offered us unlimited bandwidth), using blogrolling to enable links to wiki pages, putting up a Flickr Zeitgest on missing persons. We still need a button/logo. We still need cross-referencing between blog posts and wiki pages. We still need easy migration of data from blog to wiki ...

"We're now considering transitioning to another platform that enables easy integration between blogs and wikis ... prototyping some ideas at this point ... let's see how that emerges," Mehta said.

Just a few months ago in Malaysia, Malaysiakini.com, a non-profit and independent news site, celebrated its fifth anniversary. It has also been at the forefront of reporting on the tsunami's devastating impact on the country and the government's response. The website was launched by two friends, Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran at the time of the arrest of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, an event that outraged many and gave birth to the website.

Malaysia's reformasi (reform) movement necessitated a credible source of independent news to balance the government's propaganda stream of news in the mainstream media. In a country where transparency and press freedom is often in question, this online site had no problem attracting experienced journalist contributors, including 65-year-old M G G Pillai and Jeff Ooi from www.screenshots.com.

How does one examine the full impact of the tsunami disaster in terms of the toll on families, villages, civil society, economies and nations? This unprecedented global catastrophe ended a year that had been relatively good for democracy in Asia, with more than one billion people going to the polls in 11 countries and territories in the region.

Anwar was also freed in September, after six years in jail on a corruption charge, when the country's highest court overturned a separate conviction and nine-year sentence for sodomy.

There are now approximately 15,000 Malaysian bloggers, but the attrition rate could be as high as 65% according to Ooi, who also has a popular personal weblog, www.jeffooi.com. Because of the government's imposed censorship on politics, most bloggers continue to write personal journals, with less than 10% injecting politics and current affairs.

"I blog to provoke Malaysians thinking out of the box by focusing on Malaysia's readiness to embrace an Internet-driven knowledge-based economy. My initial key barometer is the governance aspects of Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor [MSC] and its flagship projects. Then I realized the execution could have been better if there was better implementation of government policies," Ooi said in an interview with Asia Times Online.

Ooi and other Malaysians have recognized the combined failures in former prime minister Mathathir Mohamed's MSC implementation and public-policy governance. By mid-2003, bloggers had established an aggregator for Malaysia bloggers, so that their blog postings can be read real time on one common page.

"There have been a few other attempts at independent media - Agenda Malaysia failed, Agenda Daily [aligned to a faction in the governing United Malays National Organization, UMNO], and Malaysia Today [just started]. I suppose, in terms of impact, blogs are the other major source of news views," Premesh Chandran, chief executive officer of malaysiakini.com, said in an Asia Times Online interview.

A guest blogger on Ooi's site, Ashwar Abd Aziz, wrote about his personal experience at the relief center Kota Kuala Muda, Kedah Malaysia: "On Monday December 27, my father, a committee member of the Kedah Disaster Relief Association, phoned me up and told me about the situation of the victims there. He asked me whether through my 4x4 off-road clubs, if friends could gather used clothing, books, stationeries and second-hand school shoes to be donated to the victims. And I said, 'yes, I will try my best.'"

His postings generated a caravan of off-road vehicles, mobilizing much-needed supplies to those survivors in need of supplies.

Malaysiakini.com and bloggers as independent media are providing effective forums for marginalized people in Asia at a time when ordinary lives have been devastated by this natural disaster in which each tide washes ashore more victims. This band of online tribalists brings together a deeper appreciation of shared humanity and continues to open the flow of vital news arteries.

James Borton is a freelance journalist and currently at work on a book on China's media. He can be reached at asiareview@yahoo.com.

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