“You people are too well mannered! I’ve never been to a conference where people are so properly dressed and so polite to each other!”
With these words, Neha Viswanathan made sure she had everyone’s attention. But it was not just a gimmick — she was contrasting the relatively more orderly, organised world of mainstream media (MSM) with the decidedly more anarchic world of new media — including blogs, wikis, YouTube and Second Life.
Neha, South Asia Editor of Global Voices, was speaking on a panel on ‘new media’ during the Global Symposium+5 on ‘Information for Humanitarian Action’ in Geneva this week (22 – 26 Oct 2007).
The panel topic itself showed the rapid change taking place in the humanitarian sector. As the panel premise said: “Within minutes of a disaster or conflict, the first images are seen on YouTube rather than CNN, and probably to a larger audience. YouTube, Flickr and blogging are bringing wars, disasters and their humanitarian consequences to the attention of the public, government and aid agencies more efficiently than ever. It’s now possible to keep watch on a Darfur village through satellite imagery, or take a virtual tour of a refugee camp.”
The panel was to discuss whether citizen journalism and new collaborative/ networking technologies are improving humanitarian response, and review how the humanitarian community is faring in this new environment.
My own views on this are found in another blog post: New media tsunami hits humanitarian sector – rescue operations now on!
Neha’s take was slightly different. She started reminding everyone that the new media activists were unruly and not always polite. The blogosphere is very much a contested and contentious space where arguments rage on. Not everything is moderate, balanced or ‘evidence-based’ (to use a new favourite phrase of the humanitarian community).
But in times of crisis or emergency – whether disasters or war – new media activists are increasingly the first responders. The anarchic nature actually provides them with an advantage: they are distributed, self-organising and motivated. There is no central newsroom or coordination point telling them what to do. In typical Nike style, they just do it.
As an example, she described World Wide Help, whose introduction reads: “Using the web to point help in the direction where it’s most needed”.
This blog was started by several founders and members of the SEA EAT (South East Asian Earthquake And Tsunami) blog, wiki and database, all of which gained worldwide attention at the time of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on 26 December 2004. The group, now calling themselves The World Wide Help Group, has since remobilised to aid in other relief efforts.
As Sir Arthur C Clarke has also noted, the 2004 tsunami marked a turning point in how citizen journalists and other new media activists respond to emergencies. Since then, the power of new media has been unleashed on many public interest issues and humanitarian causes. As an example, Neha cited the online campaign against street sexual harassment in India.
In Neha’s view, new media can collate authentic testimonials of those directly affected by disasters or other crises, and keep the public attention (and thereby, political interest) on emergencies beyond the first few days.
Her advice to humanitarian aid agencies: keep looking at the new media, especially blogs, to find out what people at ground zero are saying about relief and recovery work.
“Bloggers are not objective – they talk openly, and express themselves freely,” she told the largely prim and proper Geneva audience, where some participants had referred to the meeting as ‘this august gathering’!
Finally, in situations where MSM (the formerly big media!) are shut down, restrained or intimidated into not carrying out their watchdog role, it’s the new media that fills the voice. Neha described the pro-democracy struggles in Nepal in 2005 – 2006 as an example where the people power struggles continued to be reported and commented on after the autocratic king clamped down on all print and broadcast media.