TCS Daily


Disasters and Distributed Responses

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 3, 2005 12:00 AM

The good news is that the asteroid I mentioned in last week's column isn't going to hit the Earth. The bad news is that the impact of the Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami turns out to be far worse than it appeared a week ago.

But you don't need me to tell you that. Not only has it been all over the news, but it's been covered in all sorts of ways by bloggers from the region. As The New York Times observed:

        "For vivid reporting from the enormous zone of tsunami disaster, it was hard 
        to beat the blogs.    

        "The so-called blogosphere, with its personal journals published on the Web, 
        has become best known as a forum for bruising political discussion and media 
        criticism. But the technology proved a ready medium for instant news of 
        the tsunami disaster and for collaboration over ways to help."

Even Der Spiegel noticed:

        "Blogs are at the forefront of the tsunami recovery effort. While traditional 
        media drags awaiting publication, and government hotlines jam or go 
        unanswered, bloggers have hopped into the fray, providing needed 
        information to relatives desperate to find loved ones and those hoping to 
        join the rescue efforts."

Internet video took the lead, often beating out television reporters. Jeff Jarvis observed:

        "I'm watching CNN right now and Anderson Cooper made a big deal of 
        showing video of the tsunami 'just in.' Except I saw that video online this 
        morning and linked to it then.

        "Whether it comes to gathering news -- witness this video -- or distributing 
        news -- witness the 6-10 times more people who saw Jon Stewart 
        online than on CNN -- the new, distributed citizens' network sometimes 
        beats the old, centralized corporate network."

That's right. And it represents a big change, happening fast enough to cause Reason magazine's Jesse Walker to comment on the deficiencies of cable news, and remark:

        "What was really astonishing was to remember that 14 years earlier, 
        when the first Gulf War was underway, CNN was the amazing new innovation, 
        not the dinosaur in the rear-view mirror."

But now it is. (And don't get too cocky, my fellow bloggers, because it'll happen again). Still, whether or not blogs as we know them today are still around in 14 years, the big change isn't really about blogs as such: It's about the ability of people all over the world, thanks to easy and cheap communications, to self-organize in response to disaster ahead of the big guys. We saw that here. Bloggers from the affected region set up the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog to share information, locate survivors, and advise people on how to help. Others jumped in, doing what they could and directing others to places where they could find their own ways to contribute. This has made a big difference, reports the Los Angeles Times, turning relief lead-times of weeks into mere hours. What's more, people are taking things into their own hands, with, to name just one example, two blog-centric charities partnering with Federal Express to send a planeload of relief supplies, and with Federal Express even providing free pickup and delivery for the supplies from individual donors. That's a distributed response.

We've come to think of disaster relief as the work of governments and big international organizations, which -- notwithstanding often staggering inefficiencies -- formerly seemed like the only way to go. But this decentralized, self-organizing response may point the way to a less centralized approach in the future. I think that media organizations, NGOs, and governments who learn how to take advantage of this phenomenon will do better in the coming decades than those that don't. A lot better.

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