History's New First Draft
More than ever before, citizen journalists provided some of the best coverage on Thursday's London bombings.
Newsweek | July 9, 2005
By Brian Braiker
July 8 - Even as the last shockwaves of Thursday’s horrible bomb blasts ripped through London, the first photographs and eyewitness accounts had begun to circulate. But it wasn’t through the mainstream media that many of these stories and pictures first gained traction. Through photo sharing Web sites like flickr.com and individual and group blogs, the citizen journalist played as vital a role in disseminating information this week as any brand-name media outlet.
Take, as a case study, the most instantly iconic photo to emerge from the bombings: a hazy picture of a man in a crowded, eerily lit subway tunnel, holding a handkerchief to his mouth. That picture was taken on a camera phone by Adam Stacey, by no means a professional photographer, who happened to be on the subway train that was hit in a tunnel outside the Kings Cross tube station. Stacey instantly beamed the image to his friend Alfie Dennen, who runs moblog.co.uk. Dennen published the snapshot with a Creative Commons license permitting anybody to reprint it provided Stacey received credit for the photo. From there the image was picked up by picturephoning.com and then Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is edited by its readers, followed by Sky News, the Associated Press and finally the BBC and the Guardian newspaper. It has since been everywhere.
In the days before blogging and Wikipedia, says Dennen, “it would have circulated solely through e-mail, from person to person. It might have eventually made its way to Sky News.” But with the advent of blogs, which have thrived especially in Europe and Asia along with the proliferation of cell-phone cameras, the image was immediately ubiquitous. And that’s just one photograph. The photo-sharing site flickr.com, which its cofounder Caterina Fake says doubled its traffic yesterday, allows users to attach a keyword, or “tag,” to their pictures. The current list of the hottest tags reads like a collection of wire service story slugs: bombings, londonbombblast, aftermath, july7, terrorism, mourning, unionjack, londres and kingscross. Hundreds of snapshots by Londoners on the scene and well-wishers, who took pictures of Union Jacks and written messages of condolence, were posted in the first hours as the grim realization of what had happened slowly came to light for the rest of the world. Others used blogs in an effort to locate friends or loved ones.
London is a cell-phone saturated city, and what may be most remarkable about the instant proliferation of snapshots by average Joes is how unremarkable it was viewed by the blogging community, says technology journalist Xeni Jardin. Of course cell-phone images proliferated; of course citizen journalism played a significant role in the day’s terrible events. More interesting than widely circulating cell-phone pictures, she says, is the fact that Thursday may have been the first time cell-phone video footage was used so extensively by high-profile media outlets. The first video footage of the event that appeared on CNN, after all, was videophone footage from inside one of the damaged trains. Ever since, broadcast networks and wire services have been actively soliciting amateur video footage and photographs.
Jardin coedits the popular Web site BoingBoing.net, which was one among many group blogs that aggregated and linked to the blogosphere’s most interesting and illuminating posts throughout the day. Early on she linked to Tom Reynolds’s personal site, Random Acts of Reality. Reynolds is an ambulance driver who covers much of the turf affected by the bomb blasts. He was, he tells NEWSWEEK, off duty when terror struck, but began blogging immediately. “I [figured I] should get the news out to people who might not be watching the television or listening to radio,” he says, adding that his traffic spiked by five times its normal daily rate to around 50,000 visitors. “There’ve been lots and lots of people commenting, wishing us luck, praying for us.”
Londonist.com, a normally snarky and cheeky pop-culture and politics blog, turned very serious when it found it had become a hub for surfers searching for information. “It became obvious very early on that people were coming to us not just for advice, but for news,” says Londonist contributor Mike Atherton. Normally the fifth- or sixth-ranked blog by the British blog aggregator britblog.com, Londonist’s traffic landed it in the second most-viewed slot yesterday (behind the always excellent Europhobia group blog). Yesterday’s running post on the bombing drew more than 100 comments by readers offering condolences or additional information. Today’s postings began with a personal account of commuting to work on the morning after, offering an intimate voice that is seldom heard in mainstream media: “Walking past all the shiny glass buildings on Euston Road, everyone’s pace seemed to quicken. Not a good spot to linger. I popped into Euston Station ... All trains seemed to be running as normal and, apart from a few extra police officers, the scene could have been anytime.”
Technorati.com, a site that monitors what is going on in the world of blogs, created a page to track the latest news, conversation and firsthand reports from London. The site reports that "As of 4:30 p.m. on July 7, 2005, Technorati measured a 30 percent increase in blog posting over the normal level. And nine out of 10 Top Searches were about the bombings." Sean Bonner, the founder of metroblogging.com, may be a little biased when it comes to blogs, but in an Internet Relay Chat on Thursday he marveled at the quality of real-time information in the blogosphere. “It's insane how many people are online looking to blogs for info. Insane in a good way, mind you,” he writes. “Blogs are quicker than the BBC, arguably better, in some cases.” To be fair, the BBC must fact-check and edit its content before publishing anything online and it did post a page of first-person accounts to its Web site. And the blog of the British newspaper the Guardian was a truly excellent resource for people throughout the day.
But perhaps the biggest story on Thursday was Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that Internet users around the world freely add to and edit. Yesterday’s entry on the London bombings was amended, edited and updated by hundreds of readers no fewer than 2,800 times throughout the day. “It’s very different than what you get on CNN,” explains Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. “You get background. On TV you see images of blown-up buses, but you don’t have information on the different tube stops.” The entry has photographs, detailed timelines, contact numbers, a complete translated statement by the jihadist group claiming responsibility for the attacks and links to other Wikipedia entries offering context on everything from the London Underground to British Summer Time.
What happened Thursday is not done happening yet, nor will it be for a very long time. But one lesson that may already be gleaned is this: it is no longer newspapers, as the old maxim goes, that write the first draft of history. Cable news may offer instant images, but it has always been the role of the written word, meaning newspapers, to capture fleeting events and distill them into historical record. But by the time the first editions of print newspapers hit newsstands Friday morning, citizen journalists had already written that first draft, and in some respects the second and third draft, online. Factoring in Wikipedia’s coverage of Thursday’s terror, you might even say today’s papers are finally getting around to offering history’s 2,801st draft.