In the 24 months I’ve lived Bangkok I’ve had to deal with two national – I guess this is the most appropriate word – catastrophes, although in both, to date, I’ve not suffered physically.
The first, in the earlier half of 2010, was the initially mostly peaceful occupation of several central parts of the city by 50,000+ Red Shirt supporters, followed by a descent into the armed confrontation, fires and horrible bloodshed that shook us all at the time. It was geographically near to us, although not that close in such a huge city, and despite the garbage in the foreign media at no time did we feel at all unsafe – however it was still happening in my city, in places I know well and regard as home, places I visit and pass through all the time. And, yes it was emotionally harrowing and exhausting.
I, like many who were lucky enough not to have been in the direct line of fire, perhaps didn’t realise quite how much so until a few weeks afterwards – having told our families and friends all was fine all the way through.
And now, beginning some 14 months after the fires, we have these floods – variously touted here as the worst in 50 years, and the worst ever.
Whichever it is, and without making any wider claims about climate change, there is no doubt these are annually getting fiercer and more regular.
It’s an odd stalemate at the moment. The waters seem stalled at the fast flowing and capacity filled Klong Bang Sue (pronounced Baang Seu for the benefit of the waggish) with only a few dribbles – in relative terms – finding their way a few metres south towards the expanses and towers of central Din Daeng, and heavily built up north of Victory Monument zones that mostly signify the start of the inner Bangkok ‘burbs.
As with almost every natural catastrophic event (or, really, any event) of the last 36 months or more, social media has driven the reporting and news flow. In both instances here the traditional news reportage and the outlets for that – TV, newspaper, radio – have been left behind scurrying around to add quickly dated past data to their increasingly irrelevant online, paper, and – with one exception in Thailand this time – broadcast outlets.
What has really hit me this time is the way the social conversations have mutated too, in just over a year. Profoundly – both structurally and in content.
Twitter has increasing usurped Facebook, despite the fact that in Bangkok alone some 8 million plus people have FB accounts and this time around little of importance – at least in the English language which of course is a major proviso in Thailand, but it can be perhaps judged by how much activity is on Twitter in Thai and by the fact that any site of any note in the Thai language sector is being either dual-languaged, or linked to in the English discourse – seems to be on Zuckerberg’s monster aside from private chat and the usual barrage of phone images.
So, yes Twitter is it, and Twitter is being continually linked to at least a dozen semi-live Google maps including the very useful one on the Bangkok Metro Administration flood site (in Thai, but with Google translator that’s no barrier) which also links to a range of other data such including the hugely important live klong (canal) levels feed, and the definitive one from a retired French army topographer, @thaikamala, and updated every hour or so.
They all show an almost stagnant frontline (and stagnant it will be as the water recedes – yeekk) over the past few days despite the endless naysayers preaching and praying for oblivion and ‘equal pain’ for the city south.
And that is where, too, Twitter has changed.
In 2010 it made sense to follow several key people, most especially a few key reporters and adventurous, brave (read: often insane) freelancers. They fired a constant string of instant news reports in less than 140 characters which provided a continuous news and information stream often 24 hours ahead of the printed mediums, which seemed to remain largely oblivious of the paradigm shift.
The printed medium is still as irrelevant as it was in 2010 this time around but the information flow driving Twitter no longer comes from the people who may work for, or have some connection to a traditional MSM base.
I’m no longer following a list, but, instead, dependent on a hashtag. Tags are nothing new, we all use them daily – to search and follow or create trends. And yep, I used tags to narrow or search last time around, but this was complicated by the fact that there was no defined single tag and thus we had a confusion of #s which seem to multiply almost daily.
The story has changed this: in 2010 the story was driven by key players and decision makers and localised in a series of key locations, thus reporters and newsfolk had access that the rest could not hope to have and the role of the mass Twitterati was to just fire crowd-sourced tweets of happening events as they transpired, alongside the inevitable raft of opinions, theory and asides.
2011 is a completely different beast. We have a huge mass of almost uncontrollable water, many billions of litres, bearing down on one of the most populated urban areas on the planet.
The government, both local and national, have – for a variety of reasons – for all their mixed efforts, time and time again been cast aside by the brutal force of a sodden mother nature as it moves down towards the sea, following the paths of least resistance.
Repeatedly, over and over, government has made promises to both Thailand and to the global industries and stock markets – causing global economic turmoil that will go deep into 2012 – that it hasn’t been able to keep.
These have come back to bite a young government – perhaps unfairly, but bite badly it does, and the political endgame is going to play out long after the floods have gone.
This means, however, that many of the decisions and much of the public momentum, aside from evacuations and the final semi-successful massive barrier, coupled with pumps, laid across the north of central and east Bangkok, have been largely stripped out of the hands and headquarters of officialdom.
The story, instead, has come from people in the front line, both in the floods and awaiting the water. All fifteen million or so of us.
And that’s taken the essential Twitter source away from those lists of insiders to the much wider world defined by the tags #thaiflood, in Thai, and #thaifloodeng, for we English speakers.
Both tags also seemed to have established themselves in Twitterstan without decision or formal protocol and then were organically adopted. Nobody decided – officially that is – that these tags were to become the conversation pit and news zone for the floods. They simply did and they’ve become all pervasive.
They’ve become communities. Naturally, #thaiflood is somewhere I rarely go for obvious reasons, but #thaifloodeng has been running in my saved tags almost continuously for the last three weeks at least.
I like it, find it invaluable – and I hate it.
The regular subscribers and tweeters (of which I’m not one – I lurk, absorb and derive information – expatria the world over terrifies me mostly) have obvious personalities – some positive, some negative and all developing as the days and weeks pass.
There are the angry folk – many pissed off that they’re having to deal with up to two metres of water outside or downstairs. You feel their pain but there are a few – more than a few – who are keen to see anyone who hasn’t had to suffer, most especially those of us in the parts of Bangkok which remain dry, despite the fairly obvious fact that trashing the central infrastructure of the nation and the capital not going to reduce their pain, nor is it going to be helpful as the nation recovers from the personal and economic pain that these things cause.
There are the stir crazy, stuck in an increasingly skanky watery world that seems to have no near end. Rationality seems to have become more and more, as the days become weeks, subsumed by anger and irrationality. Some have become progressively worse, lashing out at others they see as more fortunate, as time passes. It hurts to watch.
There are a few who are just plain nasty – they hate Thailand, they hate Asia, they hate everything. Mostly they just pollute the forums of Thai Visa but this seems to have offered another vehicle for their odiousness. Their profiles are mostly anonymous.
Then there is the woman who writes a reasonably good food blog, albeit on the conservative side. Her earlier tweets were helpful and positive, although the aforementioned nasties jumped on her and accused her of trying to push traffic to her blog, to which the obvious response was, yes, so what…
Sadly as the waters surrounded her place, she increasingly slipped into the mode of the angry folk, clamouring to see the whole universe swamped with a metre of water and to hell with it. They deserve it too.
There are endless keyboard pundits. Opinions, conspiracies, counter opinions, some of interest, some less so, some cautiously expressed, some less so. Uninformed – mostly – armchair pundits espouse theories on water flows/physics/religion/politics/grand plans/climatology/water barriers/chemistry and just about anything else.
Filtering the disinformation and noise from anything more worthwhile has, or at least is until you quickly work out who’s who, become a time-consuming skill.
YuroFukurou’s user-friendly blocking filters are working overtime.
This group has a large noisy sub-group: those who endlessly mock the current Prime Minister and her government – because we know that they would’ve done so very much better….
Blaming a government who were only just being sworn in as the waters forced their way south seems to be de rigour for many, echoing the litany of vitriolic columns in the strongly anti-incumbent daily rag The Nation.
*to clarify – and cover my butt here: I’m not taking a pro or anti anyone stance – I view Thai politics as an interested but confused non-partisan observer*
And there are, by a margin, the plain helpful (lest I be accused of broadsiding all the, literally, thousands who have posted to the tag) including a small group of dedicated amateurs (or not quite so amateur – thinking of the tireless work of Richard Barrow, a travel blogger, who has literally cycled his way around the city tweeting reports daily as he goes) who have posted and reported news in a fairly dedicated way and given us the daily stories – crucial as the water seemed unstoppable – that much of the city was depending on.
An extraordinarily moving series of tweets today told the story of a Muslim family whose two-year-old had just drowned. They were unable to bury the toddler within 24 hours as required as the cemetery was underwater.
Given the flow, dominance, preciseness and immediacy of news online from non-traditional sources it’s less than surprising that – English language at least, the two daily papers have, after a brief attempt early on, settled in an almost numbed minimalist reporting phase, offering little more than reiterations of press releases and recounting the opinions cast elsewhere by informed others. The Nation has moved its primary focus back to its ongoing semi-obsessive agenda of criticising the new government whatever it does, including this week relentless attacks on Yingluck for planning attendance at the long scheduled APEC Conference, and then – a day later – for cancelling the trip (Hillary is coming to her instead), whilst The Bangkok Post seems to have more or less given up full stop, reverting to the stock market and the odd travel story and restaurant review.
The evening on-line flurry of news updates (written I assume as they prepare the next day’s print edition) attempting to catch up on a day which they’ve mostly missed seen somehow sad and only underline how much they’ve abdicated – unwillingly or even unknowingly as is the way with most daily press worldwide – their news role to the amateurs.
Instead, the nightly PBS broadcasts (in both Thai and English) featuring Dr. Seri Suparathit of Rangsit University Centre on Climate Change and Disaster, an easy, well spoken well-regarded Asian expert on natural disasters (the Japanese involved him post-Tsunami) have become a national must watch and the professor has become the first superstar of the floods – his words are eagerly and instantly dissected by twitter & talk radio.
“He is the ONLY one I trust” wrote one tweeter on #thaifloodeng – undoubtedly helped by the fact that he seems to have more of a predictive understanding of the day to day progress of the waters than anyone the government agencies seem able to produce.
There’ll soon be Seri T-shirts in the markets if they’re not there already.
The pictures on this page were taken yesterday at Lad Prao Junction, Chatuchak Park, Bang Sue Klong at both Ratchada and just south of Chatuchak.