It was September 11, 2001, I was sitting at my computer in the office when someone said there was a freak accident in New York. We logged online to see the second plane hit the tower in the World Trade Center. Smoke and debris against a clean blue sky. Surely, we were not seeing what was happening. We had people on the ground that day. We lost contact with some staff for one whole day. Later, their reports were horrifying in their concreteness.
We were not removed from the scene anymore. We could see a sea of shoes at the foot of the towers. I could imagine the silliness of wanting to stay in control by going back inside the towers to get some work done for a client. Those who did, were lost forever. We could not get our arms around the scope of what was happening, but because we knew where to go to talk with each other, we could do something immediately.
At the time we had a very active network as part of Fast Company, Company of Friends. When all planes were grounded, people were left stranded in foreign cities for days. We got online and on the listserv started offering help, telling the stories of people who had driven to their local airport to offer support, a place to go. Clothing and food collections were started. In a manner of hours, from sharing and learning what others were doing, people self-organized. Everyone was reporting what they were seeing and doing.
Our network was global, we were able to communicate with coordinators and groups across time zones and distance. I remember when bombings took place in Istanbul and I immediately checked with our community correspondent who was living there. We had access - and, most importantly, we had the connections, the network to support each other. That was probably the first time I felt my contribution was important to hold the connections together, to make things happen on a larger scale than self.
Citizens were the eyes and ears for the London underground bombings. We discussed how the crisis developed and how normal people were a vital part of the reporting - using their camera phones to shoot footage from the places near the blasts - at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) event in Vancouver, Canada. The head of public affairs for the London Underground at the time offered the inside story.
What they learned was that their own staff was battling on two fronts - personal and professional.
It happened again recently with the attacks in Mumbai. The victims are no longer just names, but members of a community. Within minutes of the events unfolding, bloggers and citizens with access to technology and learning from the earthquake and Tsunami of 2004, mobilized. Emily Gertz reports on the efforts and the great strides made by the community. Many known names from my own network are active in the direct reporting - Dina Mehta,Gaurav Mishra, Rohit Bhargava among them.
Some mentioned that their first knowledge of the attacks came not from TV, but from Global Voices online, then they followed the events via Twitter updates. The South Asian Journalists Association is hosting live discussions with journalists and experts (hat tip Amy Gahran), Sonia Faleiro gives a first hand account (hat tip Gavin Heaton). I could go on. Can you see the connections?
I was watching the video recording of a recent talk by Robin Hamman, formerly of the BBC and now with consultancy Headshift, about how mainstream media can leverage the content produced by citizens in their reporting just a couple of days ago. Citizens are not watching paralyzed anymore - they are actively engaged in making things happen.
Although there have been discussions of rumors being passed on as news, and confusion on the ground as a result of citizens inexperienced in news reporting being involved, the images and reports spread from the scene made an impression.
When I posed the question on FriendFeed to my Italian network, one of the responses captured the sentiment of many "Terribili, dirette, vere. La maggior parte degli italiani non e' abituata a ricevere le informazioni in questa maniera, ci sono troppi filtri," wrote Gareth. Terrifying, direct, real. Italians are not used to this kind of information delivery, there are too many filters - there still are.
We all fight our individual battles - at work, with the economy, helping our families through an illness, etc. By virtue of knowing each other online, of developing relationships that span the globe, we are also one big community - reporting the news to each other, but also spreading useful information on how to get help through our networks.
We have a constant desire to stay connected. We are learning about the tremendous responsibility that sharing information and accounts entails. The reality is that we are already all connected in one very important way - our humanity. When one of us loses, we all lose. We report the news and we *are* the news. We're experiencing how things are interconnected with the financial crisis, we experience it more and more as what happens around the world affects what we are in our own backyard.
How can we continue to translate access into support? Turning seeing and reporting what is happening to taking positive steps to help each other through it?
[screenshots from Mahalo page tagged Mumbai Terrorist Attacks and from Twitter traffic]