Monday, December 1, 2008

The war on Mumbai, the rescue of my family and the re-writing of the media rules care of Twitter

I have been quiet for the last week on the blog. You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a come down from the activity of PhoCusWright in LA the week before. But actually it has been because my family has been directly caught up in the Mumbai horror that dominated last week. My wife’s cousin and her family (husband and six month old daughter) were long term residents of the Trident Oberoi hotel in Mumbai. The husband was the head chef at the Italian restaurant that was part of this five star property. He was evacuated immediately after the terrorists stormed the hotel but my cousin (in-law) and her infant daughter were trapped in the hotel for more than thirty-six hours as they hid from the terrorists with little to no food or fresh water. The husband managed to sneak back into the hotel at around the thirty hour mark with food and water but it was not until late Friday afternoon Sydney time (around midday local time) that the whole family was liberated. Not surprisingly photos of a young a family escaping the horror dominated a lot of the online and offline pressparticularly in their native Italy (click on links for photo).

I share this with you for a few reasons. Terror attacks of this kind will impact all of us in the travel business – particularly in Asia. As an industry we have lost colleagues and friends. Additionally this was a very personal experience for me as I a was filled with worry for nearly two days culminating in the incredible feeling of joy at their survival – held in check by the sadness of the loss of so many others.

It was also a very powerful experience to live this moment in real time with the changing media tools at our disposal. The second I heard they were trapped (early morning Sydney time), I fell into an old habit, immediately switched on BBC world and sat on the couch alternating between that and CNN. Then new world instincts took over. I started by having multiple tabs focused on different online news sites –, CNN, Nytimes. But they did not time stamp their updates very effectively. It was hard to know how old (read out of date) a particular story was.

By the end of the second day I had my eyes glued to Twitter under the search tag #mumbai and more generally searching Twitter for any mention on the word Oberoi. Towards the end of the siege these twitter feeds updated themselves with nearly a tweet a second. People from all around the world were tweeting with the important ("am watching pictures of commandos storming the hotel"), the emotional ("thoughts are with all those in Mumbai"), the practical ("here is the direct line to the Oberoi Mumbai staff"), the wishful ("heard a rumour that it was all over, is that true?") and of course the useless ("here is a link to [an unrelated] video"). Meanwhile my other screen was alternating between live web streaming of NDTV (local news) and CNN-IBN (CNN’s partnership in India). Live professional feeds on one screen and live citizens on the other.

This kept me so up to date that I actually saw the live footage (as it happened) of my cousin and her family stepping out of the hotel and towards the buses. My cheers of glee brought work colleagues rushing into my office as I jabbed at the screen screaming “That’s them!!! That’s them!!!”.

This combination kept me as close as possible to the action. Almost certainly closer than if I had actually been there on the ground as I could see, hear and track the events from multiple angles. There was also an amazing human side to the Twitter feed experience. As I posted more and more questions, thoughts and updates to Twitter in the search for “and Italian national and her infant”, more and more people tweeted back with support, tips, thoughts and just plain human to human contact. Some I knew, very many I did not. It was an amazing experience but not a perfect one. At the height of things the Twitter feed was completely unmanageable. Too much information steaming too fast and none of it verifiable. People would state any rumour as fact, which would then we re-tweeted at the speed of light and build up a momentum of its own. One person Tweeted “Indian government to shut down Twitter feed because of security concerns”. Within moments this had become “Twitter law” and reappeared every 15-20 mins without fail. At no point was it supported by a source or any basis for confirmation. Real time Twitter reporting of an event like this is clearly flawed and over-whelming but it is a view into a dramatic change in how events will be reported.

Without a doubt the Mumbai horrors have shown us a real time information world unlike any before it. We will now see and watch the world unfold from multiple angles and the lines between professional media and the people on the street are not just blurred they are eliminated.

[photo is of the Vetro restaurant at the Oberoi Mumbai where my relative was head chef]

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