Japan quake shows again why the Internet is awesome

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

It is a sign of the best and the worst of times.  A group of volunteer professionals and citizen journalists use Twitter to create a hit book to mark the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

As with the Christchurch earthquake, people are mobilised to act for charity, for kindness, to help those stricken by natural disasters and catastrophe. The worst events often bring out the best in people and the social web now does this in faster ways possible than ever before. To quote, US author and internet scholar Clay Shirky, “group action just got easier”.

Take Stories from the Japan Earthquake. The book began as a Twitter hashtag – #quakebook – and has within four weeks been realised as an electronic downloadable book made up from dozens of contributions. There are plans for a hard copy version and all proceeds from the $US10 price will go to the Japanese Red Cross Society.

The book, full name 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake, is the brainchild of@ourmaninabiko, a British expat married to a Japanese woman living in Abiko, near Tokyo.

The expat editor (who prefers to remain anonymous although he does have a blog harnessed the shock and horror of the catastrophe to get contributions from a wide range of people. The names featured include Yoko Ono, William Gibson, Barry Eisler and Jake Adelstein.

The quakebook hashtag spread word about the idea of the book well before it went into production. Launched this month, the final work is a collection of essays, poetry and photographs as they relate to the magnitude 9 earthquake and its terrible aftermath.

Twitter itself sent out a tweet about #quakebook, adding to the momentum, and Yoko Ono joined in.

In an interview (using #quakechat) on Twitter this month, @ourmaninabiko told Martha Kang, a Seattle-based journalist, that within 48 hours of the putting out word about #quakebook, he had 84 expressions of interests from people.

Ono aside, other big names also became involved. William Gibson, a writer many will know as the Godfather of Cyber Punk, and who uses the @GreatDismal handle, was approached directly by the editor.

Book editor @ourmaninabiko says Gibson (writer of such seminal science fiction as Neuromancer, Count Zero and All Tomorrow’s Parties) came on board when he RTed a #quakebook tweet. “The biggest boost was Gibson sending me a DM saying he’d help out. At that moment, I knew it would be a success.”

Gibson wrote a bespoke piece, as did Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on The Police Beat in Japan, and Eisler, a bestselling American thriller writer.

“The primary goal,” said @ourmaninabiko, “is to record the moment, and in doing so raise money for the Japanese Red Cross Society to help the thousands of homeless, hungry and cold survivors of the earthquake and tsunami.

“I don’t have any medical skills, and I’m not a helicopter pilot, but I can edit. A few tweets pulled together nearly everything – all the participants, all the expertise – and in just over a week we had created a book including stories from an 80-year-old grandfather in Sendai, a couple in Canada waiting to hear if their relatives were okay, and a Japanese family who left their home, telling their young son they might never be able to return.”

Online book retailer Amazon waived all the fees and the project had lift off. German and Dutch versions are close to completion and there’s also more work to be done on the French, Spanish and Chinese versions.

It’s a great story. But it’s only one of many online fundraising initiatives that sprang up in the aftermath of the Japanese disaster. Another project is World’s 1000 Messages for Japan. Writers leave short notes on Facebook or via email which are translated by volunteers into Japanese and posted on Twitter (@Jequake1000msgs) and also on their website.

This video is also interesting. It was made by the mayor of Minamisoma and in it he appeals directly to people via YouTube for help for his quake stricken city. And it is even subtitled in English.

The quake book may become a bestseller. Or it may not. But for me it is a reminder of how an act of God and the internet can inspire and enable people to get together to create something memorable. The quake book story should be a text book case of how the internet and the social web make it possible for each of us to participate. When something terrible happens, we’re not as helpless as we may think.

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