Twittering Mumbai: Citizen journalism redeemed?

The world learned of the violence that raged through Mumbai late last week due in part to a social-media platform that is still little more than a novelty in the minds of many.

This is Twitter, the two-year-old micro-blogging platform that has yet to accomplish — or even really work toward — a business model.

But in the fog of the attacks, short messages tagged “Mumbai” were posting at a rate of more than one per second. These were real-time accounts of people watching hotels set ablaze and terrorists battle Indian commandos in the streets.

The instant delivery of these messages meant that information was getting out to the world, or at least the Twitter community, much faster than the big media outlets like CNN and the BBC could learn and make sense of the news.

This may be the most dramatic instance to date of Twitter bringing the unvarnished truth from the scene of an emergency, but it is by no means the first.

Recall in April, when a graduate student from the University of California, Berkeley, was in Egypt covering a protest rally when he and his translator were arrested. The single-word message he Twitter from his cell phone, “Arrested,” spurred those following his feed to help secure the student a lawyer, ultimately leading to his release.

The Mumbai “tweets,” as Twitter messages are known, are not a replacement for the type of reporting that established media outlets produce in situations of chaos and violence, nor are they meant to be. But they are a sound reminder that citizen journalism has a place, and that old media might find its harmony with new after all.

It wasn’t too long ago that citizen journalism took it on the chin when CNN’s posted a false account of Apple CEO Steve Jobs being rushed to the hospital after suffering a heart attack. There was no hospital trip, and there was no heart attack. Instead, the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation probing whether the report had been part of a short-selling scheme to drive down the price of Apple shares.

Without climbing on a soap box about new and old media, one lesson seems clear. A platform like Twitter has its place. It will never take the place of the type of work that Seymour Hersh does for *The New Yorker*. But when you’re wondering if your spouse or child is still alive as you’re hearing sketchy preliminary reports from a region under siege, isn’t it nice that someone took the time to develop the technology to make possible the kind of communication that can answer those questions? Just thinking that maybe in the perilous early hours of a crisis, any information is better than none.

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