Sunday, April 11, 2010

Blood on the Streets in 140 Characters

Until Saturday night, Twitter was something I'd never investigated or cared to investigate. That much of the world, including Barack Obama and the prime minister of my adopted country, frequently communicated in tweets seemed vaguely comic to me and the idea of anything worth reading being confined to the size of a Facebook status update was, I thought, absurd.

Then the night of April 10 rolled around and I was in Kowloon, worried about Bangkok. I've lived in Thailand just long enough to know that everything was fun until somebody got hurt and the flashpoint to a month of peaceful demonstrations seemed horribly close. Free speech was being treated in a way that no government that was purportedly democratic should ever allow to happen and both a TV station and Parliament had been invaded as a result. The tiny television segments I saw of what was happening in the Thai capital made my stomach hurt and although I was concerned and dying to know what was happening, I didn't turn on the TV in my room.

Facebook had nothing and I went online for news. What came up with the most recent date was a website called Thailand Voice ( and when I went to that place, there was a small column on the side of the page which changed words as I looked. It was a spot for Twitter and what was coming up in terse sentences was a rapidly-changing, constantly updated view of what was going on in real time on the streets of Bangkok.

I stayed on that page, reading 140- character reports of bullets and tear gas and casualties and
tactical moves and press releases for hours. Many of the sentences were coming from reporters and bloggers whose names I recognized--The Nation was prominent in providing capsulized information. Sentences were careful with facts and there was little editorializing, although one tweeter bemoaned the death of his tourist-based business and another was enraged that there was no technical support for i-phone at this particular moment in history.

It was an eerie and horrible evening, but it was illuminating for an old Luddite. The way news is reported and the way it is received changed forever for me the other night. On Twitter, a three-minute report is old news. As events unfold, they go out to the world in a mosaic pattern of sentences that are so immediate that they are breathtaking. Twitter provides an outline with a big blank space in the middle, but the outline is clear enough to reveal what is happening on the spot. The next morning when I read The Sunday China Morning Post, the underpinnings of the article about Bangkok's night of violence I had already read the night before on Twitter.

The SCMP report was based on news from the AP and Reuters. Of the two deaths they mentioned as being confirmed fatalities at the time the article was written, one of them was a Reuters television cameraman. I had already mourned his death--the night it happened, I read about it on Twitter.

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