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Ruben Canlas Jr

How Ondoy, Facebook, and Twitter changed our lives

October 23, 2009 2:02pm
Much has been said about how we Pinoys used Facebook and Twitter to form our own online disaster response system during the typhoon. But some things slipped our notice that are equally significant about the internet and our relationship with media.

Most of us (especially Pinoys abroad like me) who tuned in on Facebook for Ondoy updates felt something had changed, but we could not probably articulate this change fully. This is my attempt at it.

Bear with me on the first few observations. They will sound obvious, but I need to build on them to emphasize important points.

For convenience, let me use "new media" as a synonym for the rather unwieldy "internet, web and mobile technologies." The "new" is rather old by now, but I use it to distinguish from traditional or mass media.

Point One. The constraints inherent to technology shape the way we think and behave.

At the height of crises such as Ondoy, people need information. We have traditionally relied on mass media to supply us this information – a one-way relationship.

After Ondoy, this relationship definitely changed.

By using Facebook, Twitter, and mobile phones to share information about seekers and givers of help, we became our own news correspondents.

It is probably inaccurate to say the change was towards two-way communication, since it went beyond that.

Communication became multi-way, a cycle of posting, commenting and reposting on the web, enhanced by the core nature of Facebook and Twitter as social networking sites.

Economic constraints – the cost of running a TV station and staff limitations, for example – prevented mass media organizations to match what could be done with new media.

For example, a news program could not send an army of correspondents easily and report every village in need of rescue at the height of the typhoon.

In comparison, people used computers, cell phones, and social networking sites to pass information on a personal scale, for instance, the home addresses and phone numbers of families in need of rescuing.

How much did it cost for a Pinoy to post instant typhoon updates on Facebook or Twitter? Probably the cost of a text message and an internet connection, plus a fraction of computer use.

Using average internet and text messaging rates, we estimate that the total cost of being a netizen reporter would be around 50 pesos per day, and that's not even full-time.

New technology made it possible for Pinoys to report in a cost, scale, speed, and convenience that even traditional mass media could not really match.

So this is Point Two. Thanks to new media, we the citizens became volunteer correspondents, reporting live from our bedrooms or free-wifi cafes, feeding information to the public. We could do this because – we just could, finally!

Which leads us to Point Three. We were so used to the one-way relationship with traditional media that we took this for granted and thought that it would always be this way.

We knew something was wrong with the one-sided affair, but we never knew what we were missing until the new technology came.

Blogging and YouTube were early heralds of this change, but it took a great need (like Ondoy) and a huge information vacuum (government was mostly silent in the early days of the typhoon) to push things further.

Don't forget to tune in next week, when we reveal the last three points!
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