A brief history of the decade that saw social media redefine the ‘mainstream’ news outlets

First published in Scroll.in on 26 December 2014.

It is the biggest natural disaster in living memory. It killed 2,30,000 people in 14 countries. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck at a time when many were busy with Christmas holidays. It was exactly ten years ago.

There is a lot for the world to remember and learn, but for many of us it is also an anniversary of another kind. When the tsunami struck, bloggers Peter Griffin, Dina Mehta, Bala Pitchandi, Sunil Nair, Angelo Embuldeniya and others got the TsunamiHelp blog going. The TsunamiHelp blog became a global news story by itself. Large media organisations such as the Guardian, the BBC and CNN wondered how a bunch of bloggers were able to collect and disseminate information about the tsunami much faster and better than the mainstream media with all its resources. Media coverage of the tsunami was quite bad to begin with, because it was holiday season, nobody knew what the tsunami was, and the locations were remote and widely spread.

The answer to the question was simply that the TsunamiHelp blog soon came to have hundreds and then thousands of volunteers. Still, looking back, one is amazed at what they pulled off, given that there was no Facebook and Twitter. There was just blogging, email, wiki and IRC chat. (You can readhere an account of what it was like to do, from one of the early volunteers.)

The creators and volunteers of the TsunamiHelp blog are commemorating Remembrance Week. Their project has had many successors, including Google People finder. Using the internet to find people missing in a natural disaster seems like an obvious thing to do today. This wasn’t the case in 2004, when smartphones weren’t ubiquitous.

When blogging happened to India

The TsunamiHelp blog did something else, too. Since most of the key team was Indian, it created a buzz about blogging in India that took it mainstream. It was no longer something that a few geeky people were into. There were stories after stories, for a year or two, just asking or explaining blogging, and about the TsunamiHelp blog. I say this from personal experience as someone who created a blog around that time, curious about the medium. The internet had been around for a while, but what was blogging?

The term social media was yet to gain currency. It used to be called Web 2.0, the second stage of the web where those who produced media and received it were the same set of people. That is, bloggers wrote blog posts, and the same bloggers wrote comments on others’ posts. This was different from Web 1.0, where we merely read what was on websites, just as we passively read printed text and watch video.

This was now a Marxist revolution: the means of production had been captured by labour. A single person could now write, edit, publish, publicise their work on a self-publishing platform. All by him or herself.

With such power, in India as everywhere in the world, the first casualty was the mainstream media’s sense of power. The media used to be a bit like the judiciary, it was rarely criticised, because there was no platform on which to criticise it. Then came blogging. Indian bloggers, many of them journalists themselves, took on the Indian media relentlessly. All the holy cows were demolished. It seemed as though the floodgates had been opened.

War for News

An early starter was Pradyuman Maheshwari’s Mediaah! which faced legal notices from The Times of India. Another one was Desi Media Bitch, which invited anyone and everyone to join in. These were just the first media blogs. On almost every personal blog, media bashing was the in thing. News stories and opinion pieces were “fisked” – rebutted point by point. The Times of India was a favourite target. A “Google bomb” was created so that if you searched for Times of India, Google asked you, “Did you mean the Slimes of India?”

Every other day, plagiarism by some journalist or another used to be exposed by a humble blogger. Their shallow knowledge and spin doctoring exposed. One of the best media blogs, called Presstalk: Don’t Trust the Indian Media, was run anonymously. Sooner or later, everyone got to know it was run by the business journalist Kushan Mitra, and the blog lost its ability to spill the beans.
Born in 2005 was a blog called War for News which promised to track the proliferation of English news channels as they went on an unprecedented TRP race. War for News was an anonymous blog whose criticism was often personal enough to point out incorrect pronunciation or poor diction by TV journalists. It would also publish the internal memos of channels ‒ something that the media can’t object to since its own scoops depend on making public inside information about others. But War for News was a free-speech fundamentalist, refusing to moderate comments. So the comments section was full of innuendo, some of it about women journalists that was sexual in nature.

One day, War for News stopped blogging and later deleted its entire archive. The Delhi journo gossips soon had the behind-the-scenes story: a TV channel had put four of its tech people on the full-time job of cracking the identity of Mr “War for News”. They allegedly discovered the IP address from which posts were being made and managed to persuade the internet service provider to reveal the name of the customer who used it. It turned out to be a print journalist. His editor was called up and the rest is unrecorded history.

The media was no longer a holy cow, but there was more to the crisis. The mainstream media was losing its monopoly over the “national” conversation. What was the value of a newspaper editorial when there were a million voices on the subject out there? (When was the last time you saw someone quote an editorial written by a newspaper?) Activists didn’t chase the media, it was the media that chased activists showcasing their work online. People with niche interests didn’t beg for a space in the media. The media hunted them down, leaving public messages to get in touch. The tables were turned, the power dynamic was no longer tilted in one direction.

When Facebook replaced Orkut

The media was to taste the power of the internet in a big way when the 26/11 attacks occurred in Mumbai in 2008. The media erred in broadcasting the attacks live, inadvertently helping the terrorists. Many viewers did not like the hyperventilating tone of the coverage, and singled out Barkha Dutt of NDTV for special criticism. News TV has till date not acknowledged that there was any problem with its 26/11 coverage, leave alone apologise. There were Facebook groups demanding that Dutt be taken off air. On her part, Dutt realised social media was here to stay and smartly decided on a policy of engagement. She became hyper-active on Twitter.

By this time we had graduated from Web 2.0 to the social media age. Facebook and Twitter had killed blogging, which produced a lot of great writing. The bloggers’ own lives were changed by the experience. Some published books, some joined social media marketing companies, and some just managed to raise their profiles in whatever they did.

The mainstream media knew it was fighting a losing war. “We do the reporting! They use our information!” they complained. That was a reference to the function of aggregation that blogs performed. There were entire blogs, such as Amit Varma’s India Uncut, which were mostly aggregators: They collected the most interesting links, news and others, and posted them with commentary. This was a precursor to people sharing their favourite links on social media today, something journalists, too, participate in.

The mainstream media soon realised that they needed social media more than the other way round. It was clear that social media was a sounding board for their work, to get contacts and story ideas, to find people on the ground, and to build their audiences. They could choose to ignore Orkut, but Facebook was cool even for them. Twitter just became compulsory. Unlike blogging, social media was not a niche. Almost everyone was on it.

They complained about online hate. From 2006 to 2014, I was invited to various TV shows where I was asked to defend trolling. Everybody, celebrity TV anchor or a random blogger, has come to accept online trolling as a fact of life. There’s hate speech and abuse on the internet because there’s hate speech and abuse in real life.

Big media was thus forced to shed its contempt of the masses on the internet and joined Facebook and Twitter in droves. Social media presence became a professional hazard. When one journalist newly joined Twitter, he tweeted about how the drama over the “hijack'”of a Rajdhani train by Maoists made for exciting 24×7 network television. Many replied him that it was perhaps inappropriate to describe as exciting some tense hours for hundreds of train passengers. No journalist would make such a mistake today.

By the time Radia tapes were leaked in 2010, there was no way social media was going to let it pass. Most of the mainstream media wanted to pretend there were no tapes, but social media forced it to break its silence. There isn’t a single journalist today who can do her professional work without social media. In the past, we used to see “vox pop” stories asking people what they thought of something. It was normal practice to cook up quotes of “the public” or at best, the reporter would call up friends and family members. They’d be thrilled to see their names in print, expressing an opinion about the railway budget. Today, Tweets are quoted.

Of citizens and journalists

The term “citizen journalist” was popularised by the mainstream media to co-opt the blogging revolution. As the “real” journalists joined social media in droves, I wondered if they, too, had become citizen journalists? I asked one such, and she replied, “Just a regular journalist, ji!”

At a social media conference in Jaipur two years ago, I asked Mid-Day editor Sachin Kalbag if journalists still have contempt for social media. They do, he said, and as an example he told me how his journalist friends advise him not to reply to common people on Twitter. It reduces his stature, they said.

Journalists used to think they represent the people, and speak on their behalf to the powers that be. Suddenly, the people found a platform to ask questions of the journalists. The angst of journalists born before the internet age is like that of Rajputs in Rajasthan who rue that though they were the ruling elite of their land once upon a time, their stature has diminished. The media universe was democratised. The information plebians are here. “New media” is now the media.

Social media made journalists realise they were citizens first, journalists second. That they weren’t god’s gift to humanity. Gone are the days they could forgive each other their mistakes over a drink in the press club. The people have found a voice. They are no longer a helpless, captive audience who can be fed what a few editors like. Their chai shop banter has gained the power of the written word. Yesterday’s verbal is today’s online.

So, yes, I’m a citizen journalist and proud of it.

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