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.


Flying fast and loose with the truth

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the hours after the Japanese earthquake, someone posted on Twitter that the creator of Pokemon, Satoshi Tajiri, had been killed and the news quickly spread.

But like reports of Mark Twain’s death in 1897, Tajiri’s ‘death’ was greatly exaggerated. The news was picked up by gaming blogs and websites prompting Nintendo, maker of the Pokemon games, to respond in a statement. Satoshi Tajiri was alive and unharmed, as were all of Nintendo’s employees.

Tajiri himself updated his status on Facebook to reassure everyone and to correct assertions that he was an employee of Nintendo. “Dear Hummingbirds, what’s this nonsense about me being dead? Also, I don’t work at Nintendo Japan, I’m the CEO of Game Freak (everybody is fine). More importantly, if you can, help Japan,” he wrote.

What motivated the source of this hoax? Was it an anti-social reflex or a silly prank? Whatever it was, it represents a dark side to social media that some users are motivated enough to tell lies about someone’s death. Social media is excellent at breaking news but it is also very good at spreading wrong information.

In another recent case, a young Wellington Twitter user alerted organisations including the New Zealand Herald and the Asia New Zealand Foundation that interpreters were being asked to volunteer their services to cater for a large group of internationals who had been transferred to the Capital in the recent aftermath of the February Christchurch earthquake. She said the volunteer interpreters were being asked to meet at Te Papa at 5pm that day.

News reporters were soon sensing a story and on the phone to me at the Asia New Zealand Foundation. On closer examination, the story turned out to be that the young tweeter had been given the information by her mother who taught at an English language school. This was all good and well except that the call for interpreters had been for the day before.

This was not a malicious tweet but it was like the first, a waste of everyone’s time. There are similarities between those two examples and the fight that CNN found itself in over its live coverage of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami in what has come to be known as the “Godzilla incident”.

As you can read here on Mashable, CNN news anchor Rosemary Church was accused of laughing and joking about the disaster in Japan and either her or her interviewee were thought to have made a light-hearted reference to Godzilla, the famed Japanese B-grade monster.

All of this would have been justified had the source of the complaint on Twitter heard correctly. But he got it wrong. Godzilla was never mentioned although the American eyewitness she was talking to did make reference to scenes “almost like a monster movie”. And Church never laughed once.

You can read the transcript here and watch the video at Mediaite.

In view of these examples, nobody in their right mind would indiscriminately equate Twitter with the truth. Like any other tool in our hands, social media gets used in good ways and bad ways, used wisely, informatively and humorously or used foolishly, wrongly and maliciously.

But after an afternoon watching news tweets roll out and become amplified, about a new tsunami threat, and then seeing those tweets get cancelled out when it proved to be a false alarm, I was strangely encouraged.

Many of us care enough about information to update old information (thankfully, no second tsunami), to correct wrong information and to challenge malicious information. It’s called the great social media self-correcting organism. Check, challenge, corroborate, confirm and verify. The truth doesn’t always come out on top but I’m glad to know it matters for many of us using social media. In the meantime, be careful out there.

Twitter Captures Japan Quake Horror

March 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Our household first received news of the Japanese earthquake on Twitter about 7pm. There were tweets from a number of Japan-based Twitter people that it was shaking in Tokyo and buildings were swaying around. At first it didn’t seem as if there was much horror and there appeared not to be many injuries, perhaps a testament to the strength of Tokyo buildings.

A number of tweets from Beijing said that there was an earthquake in the Chinese capital. Some concluded that it was the same quake and if they felt it in Beijing, it must have been big in Japan. It was the pregnant moment when there is a growing realisation that this is going to be huge.

Then people in Tokyo started tweeting that they could see buildings on fire and some posted photos of plumes of smoke in the distance. Suddenly tweets about a tsunami warning began to multiply into a swarm and this phase morphed into real time news of a tsunami smashing into the Japan’s eastern coast near the port city of Sendai.

Soon there were tweets of links that were broadcasting a live stream on the internet. The first media outlet that caught the eye on Twitter was Al Jazeera which is having a stellar year as a news organisation with its coverage of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Al Jazeera was tweeting that it was screening live pictures on television and the internet of the wave of destruction. I checked Sky News and CNN and both were also screening the story live.

I then responded to a direct tweet from a newspaper reporter seeking New Zealanders living in Japan. I was able to help her find a friend in Abiko, near Tokyo, who had been tweeting the seriousness of the situation, but who had also included this gem: “Must be serious. Mother-in-law is wearing outside shoes IN THE HOUSE.”

But at this stage, both TV3 and TVOne had not broken from their regular Friday night scheduling. TV3 were screening Glee and TVOne had Masterchef. By flicking between them and Sky News, I just about got the moment TV3 gave up on Glee and caught up with the next big wave lined up to hit the coast.  TVOne may have been conflicted because of its sponsorship tie-ins with Masterchef. So while some of us were seeing the disaster unfold in real time moving pictures, some of us were watching a cooking show.

The tsunami images were horrific and breath-taking. The sting was not the 8.8 earthquake which certainly caused initial damage and injury but it was the destructive wall of water that followed, and which in all likelihood be found to be the main cause of the fatalities and injuries.

The story then quickly evolved into a trans-national one as people picked up on tweets that the US Geological Survey had issue a regional tsunami warning that the quake would also possibly affect countries around the western rim of the Pacific, including as west as Hawaii, and even as far south as New Zealand.

Around this time, Civil Defence in New Zealand revealed on Twitter it was having web update problems but were working on it. Later the organisation took to publishing its web updates on Google Docs. But in the meantime, its Twitter feed had proved timely and informative.

By mid-evening, TVOne got an interview with a spokesman for Civil Defence. He was asked by a reporter that some people had been asking if the Japanese urban search and rescue team that had been working in Christchurch was still in New Zealand.

I can only assume she had seen that question on Twitter because New Zealand tweeters had been asking that very question. I like to think that there is a collective feeling, in the wake of Christchurch, that we want to tell the Japanese people to take our Twitter love and sympathy. Because we know how it feels.

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