The effectiveness of the web showed itself once more with the terrorist attacks in Mumbai – with the photo-sharing site Flickr and the microblogging system Twitter both providing a kaleidoscope of what was going on within minutes of the attacks beginning.
As India’s financial capital, Mumbai is home to a number of the country’s most computer-literate users – who have been quick to adopt the microblogging format of Twitter, which limits messages to a text message-length 140 characters.
Flickr was soon host to a set of photos from Vinukumar Ranganathan, who grabbed his camera and headed out into the street; his set of pictures taken on the night contained 112 photos with dramatic scenes of the aftermaths the attacks in the district of Colaba.
Twitter meanwhile provided a constant stream of information through its search function, allied to the use of tags – #mumbai being the favourite as the situation developed. The first notes of the attacks came from Indian users of Twitter (though the site’s search facility doesn’t go far back enough to show them).
In fact the Indian government became so concerned about the amount of information being spread through Twitter that it asked for the site to be temporarily blocked.
For that, conventional systems still seem to be the robust ones. But the strength of Twitter for passing on details of what’s happening (if not for echoing it, which only added to the noise) may carry important lessons for larger organisations trying to keep track of widely-spaced emergencies. Twitter is, in essence, a text-messaging facility; it’s been used to great effect with natural disasters such as fires. The means that wherever there’s a phone, there’s the same utility.
Which only makes it a pity that Twitter is still struggling to find a commercial model that would let it be broadcast to those who want it via text message. After withdrawing its text message broadcast service in the UK (though you can still text updates to it), it has now done the same in Canada. As it starts to look like an increasingly useful system (because text messages don’t need as much bandwidth as a voice call, and so can better survive the failure of parts of the mobile network; and ‘tweets’ can be sent via text message. But if you can’t receive those messages, the network’s usefulness falls.
(Related: Jessica Reed rounds up citizen journalism on the Mumbai attacks.)