What do smartphones, Twitter and the Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok have in common? The answer is simple. It has at times meant the difference between life and death for foreign tourists and expats in Bangkok. Maybe a little melodramatic, but it has a grain of truth. Without Twitter, and the ability of accessing it on a smartphone while out and about, we wouldn’t have known whether it was safe to travel in Bangkok. This is because journalists, both real and otherwise, were tweeting live what was happening across the capital. Some were out in the field tweeting words, pictures and video. Others were at home commenting on live pictures that they saw on national and international news channels. We even had the benefit of having running translations of breaking news on Thai television or whenever the prime minister or one of the generals gave a speech. For foreigners living or visiting Thailand and who don’t understand the language, Twitter was a life-line for them during the protests and the sometimes violent clashes between the red shirts and the Thai army.
I came into this game a bit late. I bought my first smartphone towards the end of February 2010. It was an iPhone and for me it was a big upgrade from a secondhand Nokia that I had been using for a few years. It was something that I had been dreaming about for years but I was just waiting for the technology, and the price, to catch up with me. I have been promoting Thailand online for about twelve years now and I’ve always wanted the ability to report live from the places that I was visiting around the country. As part of my job I attend a lot of festivals and I wanted to be able to report back to people live from these events. I had tried an air card for my laptop a few years ago but it was frustratingly slow and the laptop cumbersome to carry around out in the field. I think I must have been looking at smartphones for the past year trying to decide which one to buy. I just never found a review that made any of them sound like the perfect device. In the end it was a choice between a Blackberry and the iPhone. To be honest, I was concerned a little at first about the keyboard on the iPhone. I was worried that my fat fingers and thumbs wouldn’t be able to handle it. But, I finally decided to buy an iPhone 3GS and have never regretted that day.
For the uninitiated, Twitter is similar to what people call blogging. You are basically sharing your thoughts and activities with your “followers”. It is what I have been doing for the last six years at www.thai-blogs.com. However, the difference is that with Twitter you are limited to only 140 characters. And that includes the spaces! I guess this is what they now call “micro-blogging”. It takes time to get used to. I actually joined Twitter on 9th September 2009 but I never used it until I bought the iPhone five months later. I wasn’t too sure if I would take to it. I couldn’t actually see the point at the time. On the front page of my Twitter account there was a question in big letters “What’s happening?” and then a box to fill in with 140 characters. I’ve always valued my privacy and so I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to let people know where I was or what I was doing. I also wasn’t too sure if people would actually be interested in my random thoughts or events that I attended. Never the less, my first tweet went out on 27th February 2010 with the words “At the graduation of Nong Grace. Time has gone quick”. I think the thing that excited me the most that day was that I also included a link to a live picture that was uploaded at the same time to twitpic.com. Of course, not many people saw that first tweet. And even now, two months later, I only have 1,000 followers. Not a lot when compared to people like PM Abhisit who has 75,000 followers. But, it is a start.
About the same time as my first tweet, I also posted my first “moblog”. This is an abbreviation of “mobile blogging”, which, as the name suggests, is blogging from your mobile phone. This was the most exciting development for me. For the first time I was able to post blogs while I was still on location and my thoughts were still fresh. If you visit www.mythailandblog.com you will be able to see some examples of my moblogs. The main difference between the blogs here at www.thai-blogs.com and those moblogs are obviously the number of words. However, if you compare my earlier moblogs to the ones I do these days, you can see that I am now typing longer moblogs on my iPhone. Sometimes, I post about the same event on both blogs, but the moblog is definitely more laid back and relaxed and has more of my daily life that I don’t write about at www.thai-blogs.com. Even if the events are the same, the pictures are always different. This is because I use my big DSLR for this blog and my iPhone camera for the moblog. As I carry my iPhone around with me all the time, unlike the heavy DSLR, you will find the I write moblogs more frequently. And I also now find it easier to process pictures and video in my iPhone and then use a Word Press application to write my moblog. These are then uploaded up onto the Internet. Whenever possible, I try to post while I am still at the event.
Some people say that Twitter comes into its own during revolutions and natural disasters. And they are probably right. Twitter was perfect for both reporting and receiving the news about the Red Shirt protests. As many people know, Thai television is not very good when it comes to reporting live and breaking events. They decided to finish broadcasting their latest soap operas and game shows before they bothered to report about the devastating Tsunami. And of course, when they do report on an event, there won’t be any English which leaves a lot of foreign tourists and expats in the dark. For me, SMS breaking news from the Bangkok Post and The Nation was vital to knowing what was going on. But, that has all changed. These days, my “breaking news” comes from the Twitter application on my iPhone. For the past two months I have been finding out about events from people who were live on the scene. CNN calls them “citizen journalists”. Clashes between the Reds and the army were reported on Twitter first before TV picked it up and an hour or so before I received an SMS. The other week, a crane fell over on Sukhumwit Road. We learned about it on Twitter a few minutes later. Of course, it takes experience to know which of these “citizen journalists” that you can trust to give a reliable report with a 140 character limit. But, they say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I didn’t believe that soldiers were really on Silom Road until people started tweeting live pictures.
Quite a few of my tweets are about events happening in my home province of Samut Prakan. I take pictures for a local newspaper and we also have our own online news magazine at www.paknam.com. Most events are ordinary and not really of interest to a wider audience. However, my first major “live event” on Twitter came about two weeks after I had started tweeting. On 12th March nearly 5,000 red shirt protesters descended on Samut Prakan to rally at the Provincial Hall and then parade through the town. I was using my iPhone to upload live pictures and videos of this event which I then posted on both Twitter and my moblog. Then, two days later came the Red March where nearly double that amount marched into Bangkok from Samut Prakan. Many of the red shirts walked all the way from the Bang Na Intersection to the rally stage at Phan Fa Bridge. It was an amazing event that I followed the whole way for nearly six hours. Most of the route followed the sky train along Sukhumwit Road. As we went along, I was tweeting pictures and estimations of numbers. I also started to get replies from people on Twitter saying that there was no news of this event in the Thai media at all. I guess they wouldn’t have believed me if I wasn’t uploading live pictures from the iPhone. Once we finally reached the rally site I took pictures around that area and even uploaded some live pictures from the stage.
During the height of the red shirt protests, I was constantly checking Twitter for updates of what was happening. At one time, foreign governments were warning their citizens to avoid all travel to Bangkok due to the dangerous conditions. However, from what I was learning on Twitter, I knew that the clashes and violence were often isolated incidents. As we have quite a few online guidebooks for Thailand, including our forums at www.ThailandQA.com, we were getting many questions about whether it was still safe to travel to Bangkok on holiday. The only way I could really answer that was to go there myself and give live updates on what I saw. I also put together a Bangkok Dangerous Map using Google maps showing areas to avoid and roads that have been blocked. I guess people wanted to know as the map has had over 300,000 views in less than two months. A number of times I went for a walkabout around Red Camp. After I while I started calling it the Red Lands as they were so self-sufficient. I took pictures of soldiers and police and also crowds and then uploaded them up onto the Internet via Twitter. Some of my most popular pictures included the open street toilets, the flip flops with pictures of the prime minister on them, and general shots of the large shopping malls standing unusually empty.
I think a lot of us underestimated the amount of interest people had in what was going on in Thailand. But the big question is, now that it looks like the protests are dying down, will people still continue to follow me? More importantly, will I have anything of interest for them to read! One big problem I have now is that I might have to think twice before I tweet about the pineapple that I bought at Foodland and stuck in a tub of earth. I am proud that it is actually growing, but will people like Sutichai Yoon, the editor-in-chief of the Nation Group, and other national and international broadcasters really be interested? It is hardly breaking news for the CNN news anchor that follows me. But, I guess at the end of the day, it is important that I just carry on being myself and writing about what I am observing and experiencing. There will probably be more protests for me to cover in the future, but I think most of my tweets will now be about life and culture in Thailand and my travels in this great country that I now call my home. If you wish to follow me, you can do so by going to @RichardBarrow.
Related blog: Using an iPhone in Thailand