PETALING JAYA: The massive undersea earthquake west of the island of Sumatra hit at about 9am on Sunday. The first few blog posts on the tremors that were felt in Malaysia hit the Net about two hours later:
Was there an earthquake this morning in Malaysia or in Indonesia with the vibrations hitting Kuala Lumpur?
It was about 9.00 o’clock this morning, when the iron bars on my window started to vibrate.
I thought that this is weird, since the aircon is not that strong, of course, to move those bars. But they kept shattering (sic).
I just ignored it … anybody knows something more? — AlwaysWoW! (www.alwayswow.blogspot.com), 11.28am, Sunday.
The tremors were the least of the problems of the more than 20,000 who died Sunday. Many did not even feel them.
While the earthquake — 9.0 on the Richter scale — destroyed buildings and lives in Aceh, Sumatra, and shook up people in Malaysia and Thailand, a more horrific devastation was to come from another source.
By the time of the blog post above, waves generated by the fourth largest earthquake ever recorded had travelled thousands of kilometres to mercilessly pound coastal communities in countries that ringed the epicentre.
The first news reports began to trickle on the tsunamis, which also hit Penang, Kedah, Perlis and Perak, but many news organisations were still unaware of the degree of the destruction until much later.
“Throughout Sunday, only a few local news portals — Star Online and Bernama — provided updates; the TV stations were (seemingly) in a daze,” said blogger Jeff Ooi.
It was the day after Christmas, and even online news outlets were still scrambling to provide coverage hours after the tsunami hit Penang.
“I received a message from (Malaysiakini CEO) Prem (Chandran) at around 4pm … he was the one who first told me about the earthquake, and the tsunami that hit Penang,” said Ooi, whose Screenshots (www.jeffooi.com) blog is widely read and considered an alternative news source.
“He was asking whether I had any stringer there who could provide first-hand accounts and pictures.”
Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com) is an independent online news organisation which features Screenshots on its homepage.
Raw info and feelings
Bloggers fared somewhat better. Petaling Street Project (PPS), a portal that aggregates posts from hundreds of local bloggers, was hit by a “tidal wave of pings,” as online satirist and StarMag columnist T.V. Smith described it on his site (www.mycen.com.my/duasen).
“In the immediate aftermath of this morning’s devastating earthquake — PPS’ network of bloggers rose to the occasion — providing personal and timely reports from various parts of the country,” Smith blogged on Sunday.
These relatively early accounts were mostly personal experiences.
“They were very localised, down to the perimeter of their apartments, in fact,” said Ooi. “The blog posts provided nuances of a confused and chaotic frame of mind — very raw and very forthcoming.”
This made for some “compelling and revealing reading,” said PPS (www.petalingstreet.org) founder Aizuddin Danian, who also has his own blog Volume of Interactions at (www.aizuddindanian.com/voi/).
I just got off the phone with my nephew who stays with his family at the Pulau Betong fishing village near Balik Pulau (in Penang). That area was hit by tidal waves subsequent to the earthquake off Sumatra this morning.
His father and brother are both fishermen. Luckily they were not out at sea when the massive waves struck. His brother however lost his moored boat which sank after the incident.
I am relieved that they are all safe. — Peter Tan (www.petertan.com/blog), 5.30pm, Sunday.
Tan told In.Tech later, “Bloggers can disseminate information like this almost immediately after the incident. Journalists cannot be everywhere all the time.”
Speedily filling the void
Local blogs clearly played an important role on Sunday, filling what Ooi called “the information void of the hour.”
According to Aizuddin, speed was the chief advantage that the blogs had over the more established news sources in “reporting” on the disaster. “No editorial control, no schedule (to slow them down),” he said.
But having such freedom comes with a price, especially in the breadth and depth of the information provided.
Blogger “Mack Zulkifli” described it as a different sort of coverage, with local bloggers generally responding to the events on Sunday at a personal level.
“I would not say that it is news or it can replace news,” he said. “More than anything else, (local) blogs are pockets of opinions that cling to related news.”
Ooi cautioned that such raw, emotionally-driven, and unverified accounts could provide only “fragments of truth,” with the potential drawback of producing “undesirable interpretations.”
“The blog reports might not be the proper reference for quick action, especially for those in disaster areas,” he added.
As far as local blogs were concerned, the credibility gap remains serious. “With the exception of a few blogs, most people discount the opinions of bloggers — they have yet to earn the trust of Joe Public,” said Aizuddin.
The best of them showed why he has earned more than a little credibility: Ooi’s Screenshots blog has provided a very comprehensive take of events since Sunday.
“I put in my blog (entry on the tragedy) at around 4.50pm and kept updating it until 7pm,” he said, returning after dinner at 11pm to continue trawling the Internet and providing updates.
Still, even the likes of Ooi has attracts a relatively small audience. Screenshots’ “tsunami traffic” reached 14,000 pageviews on Monday, compared to The Star Online‘s average of 6,900 concurrent connections per second on the same day.
This demonstrates how limited the reach of local blogs is. “For all their speed and timeliness, bloggers only reach people who log onto the Internet and browse blogs,” said Aizuddin. “The number of people who access blogs is relatively tiny.”
But the personal nature of many local blogs also suggests that most bloggers aren’t doing it to provide news and information per se. Tan, a former copywriter, argued that the early blog accounts of events on Sunday went beyond that.
“Although not always accurate, first-hand account blogs provide a stopgap measure for the lack of news and create a semblance of order in times of catastrophe,” he said.
“This flow of news from one man in the street to another certainly fosters a spirit of community, where any bit of news is better than no news.”
The blogs also provided “a virtual holding hands session,” according to Mack, who has started a donation drive for victims of the tsunami from his blog Brand New Malaysian (www.brandmalaysia.com/).
“People are comforted knowing there are others out there who care enough to take the time to respond to their plight,” he said.