Never before has a crisis unleashed so much raw data -- and so little interpretation -- than what we saw as the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, unfolded. Amid the real-time video feeds (kudos to CNN International), cell phone pictures, and tweets, we were able to keep abreast of what seemed to be happening, and where it was going down, all the while not really knowing those other key, canonical components of journalistic information gathering -- namely, who or why.In fairness, no one did. There were so many tentacles to these heinous attacks, and multiple hot spots (the Taj and Oberoi hotels and the Chabad Jewish center, to name the three most prominent), that even the Indian government likely didn't have a handle on things until late in the game. My point here is not to criticize, but simply to note that I was struck, as never before, by the ability of data to outstrip information.
I'd add that Mumbai is likely to be viewed in hindsight as the first instance of the paradigmatic shift in crisis coverage: namely, journalists will henceforth no longer be the first to bring us information. Rather, they will be a conduit for the stream of images and video shot by a mix of amateurs and professionals on scene.
You've got to add to this the immense influence of Twitter. In the past few days, I've seen a slew of stories pointing out how Twitter was a key source of real-time updates on the attacks, to the point that Indian authorities asked people to stop posting to the microblogging service (for fear that they might be giving away strategic information to the terrorists).
[Here's how the Times of London put it on Thursday: "People using Twitter reported that bombings and attacks were continuing, but none of these could be confirmed. Others gave details on different locations in which hostages were being held. And this morning, Twitter users said that Indian authorities was asking users to stop updating the site for security reasons."]
Contrarian that I am, I looked into the situation, and came away with my usual "yes, but" response. Namely, while there might have been sensitive information buried amid the streams of #mumbai tweets, you'd be hard pressed to separate it out from the more pedestrian commentaries on the situation and complaints about coverage. (For the uninitiated, tweets are what you call twitter postings, and "#mumbai" is how you tag a tweet to indicate that it's about Mumbai.)
Indeed, the sheer volume of "#mumbai" tweets would seem to militate against the notion that there's anything of value easily accessible within. Since going through the first 100 pages of tweets only takes you back several hours, I did random searches on postings from Wed., Nov. 25; Thurs., Nov. 27, and Friday, Nov. 28, and couldn't come up with much hard information (click on the image below to see for yourself.)
Twitter was an ongoing source of updates and commentary on the terrorist attacks. (Click picture to enlarge, and to see 2 additional screens.)
Corroborating my case is this story from the Metro UK Web site. While it purports to show bloggers tweeting about the terrorist attacks, I'd say that, instead, it shows them meta-tweeting. As in, a news story goes 'round the world, and then pops back up on the Internet.
To sum up, my point is not to denigrate the Internet's new-found prominence as a source for all things journalistic (though if the PC had never been invented, my job would be a lot more secure, but that's another story). It's simply to point out that our brave, new online world hasn't completely gelled yet, and we haven't fully evolved the model for how citizens and journalists will simultaneously cooperate and compete to deliver the news to a public with an increasingly short attention span (albeit intense interest; figure that dichotomy out). We're still at the beginning of the beginning.
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