Citizen journalists offer timely, new perspectives on events
NEW YORK - From his terrace on Colaba Causeway in south Mumbai, Arun Shanbhag saw the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel burn. He saw ambulances leave Nariman House. And he recorded every move on the Internet.
Shanbhag, who lives in Boston but happened to be in Mumbai when the attacks began Wednesday, described the gunfire on Twitter - the "thud, thud, thud" of shotguns and the short bursts of automatic weapons - and uploaded photos to his personal blog.
An assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Shanbhag said he had not heard the term citizen journalism until Thursday, but now he knows that is exactly what he was doing. "I felt I had a responsibility to share my view with the outside world," Shanbhag said in an e-mail message yesterday morning.
The attacks in India served as another case study in how technology is transforming people into potential reporters.
At the peak of the violence, more than one message per second with the word "Mumbai" in it was being posted onto Twitter, a short-message service that has evolved from an oddity to a news platform in two years.
Those descriptions and others on websites and photo-sharing sites served as a chaotic but critically important link among people across the world - whether they be Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn tracking the fate of a rabbi held hostage or students in Britain with loved ones back in India or people hanging on every turn in the standoff during Thanksgiving dinner.
"When you look at TV, you see one channel at a time, then you go to another channel," said Dina Mehta, a social media consultant in Mumbai. "On Twitter, you get feeds from many different people at the same time."
For a small segment of the Lubavitch Hasidic community in the United States, Twitter became a way to follow the fate of their rabbi, Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife, Rivka, and their son, who were being held hostage.
"I relied on Twitter heavily," said Mordechai Lightstone, 24, a freelance journalist and Lubavitcher with a Twitter account. "It gets frustrating when the news cycles on itself."
Lightstone said that only a week or so ago he persuaded the leaders of his community to use Twitter as a publishing tool. Reading Lightstone's posts, as well as those of another Lubavitcher, Reuven Fischer, gave a glimpse into a community fearing for one of its own. Lightstone wrote, "This is pure hearsay, but I was told that the shlucha was rescued - again this unsubstantiated chabad mumbai," using the Yiddish word for the rabbi's wife. As the news that the rabbi and his wife had been killed emerged, and the Sabbath approached, Lightstone and Fischer tempered their sadness with the joy of the day of rest. Fischer wrote: "We should Honor Shabbos with joy this week. We can mourn after Shabbos doing Mitzvot in honor of ALL effected by this tragedy."