It's safe now to confess that I was bemused when Peter Griffin, otherwise known as The
Griff, sent a joint mail to some of us fledgling bloggers asking if we'd like to be part of a new group blog (or
CollaBlog) that would provide updates and information about the tsunami. This was when the tragedy was just revealing its awesome, terrifying scale. I had started blogging a couple of months earlier and was naive about what the medium could achieve; my own site was little more than a sounding board for scattered musings and rants.
So the impact of the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog, cleverly acronymned SEA-EAT, was an eye-opener. My "contribution" was limited to having my name on the sidebar but I watched, fascinated, as events unfolded. Started by Griffin, Rohit Gupta and Dina Mehta as a forum for information on relief efforts and addresses for donations, SEA-EAT quickly developed into a phenomenon; high-traffic websites like Boing Boing, the New York Times and the Guardian linked to it, and up-to-the-minute contributions began flowing in from around the world.
The reason for the impact of blogs like SEA-EAT (and later, Cloudburst Mumbai and Quake Help) was that they were run by teams of dedicated people who knew how to leverage the advantages of the internet—reaching a wide audience, pooling valuable resources from concerned people regardless of their location. Online technology was put to excellent use—for instance, the Flickr photo facility and its tags helped the Missing Persons effort. The site was split into sub-blogs with different focus areas, to avoid clutter and make it easier to search for content. A workgroup page was constructed to keep track of who was doing what and prevent duplication of efforts.
Along the coast, in India and Sri Lanka, people helping in relief efforts sent short text messages with eyewitness accounts, which were transcribed and put up as posts. At the time, reading reports by bloggers like Amit Varma and Dilip D'Souza gave me a more personal view of the tragedy than anything that was available in mainstream news coverage. In a situation like this, independent reporting had obvious advantages over mainstream media, which was trammelled by (among other things) deadline and space constraints.
That said, the hoary Bloggers vs Mainstream Media (MSM) debate is a non-issue. Most leading topical bloggers are aware of how limited their reach is. They see themselves as complementing the MSM's work, not taking it on—if they perform a corrective role by drawing attention to the MSM's mistakes, they are no less harsh with other bloggers. Admittedly, because of the medium's nature (and the low net penetration in India), it's difficult to provide quantifiable evidence of what a blog has accomplished. "We got grateful e-mails," Griffin tells me. "We infer from the traffic, from the links to us from global news organisations, that we were able to provide valuable information at a time when it counted. We realised that we had created a model for online collaboration that works pretty well."
What does all this add up to? That's hard to explain in a short article like this one (besides, hyperlinking—another advantage of the internet—isn't possible here!). So in the final analysis I would encourage you to visit some of these blogs and surf the archives. You'll be as surprised as many of us were a year ago.