I arrive in Bangkok late last night. By the time the driver approaches the area near Siam Square where my hotel is located it is nearly 1:00 in the morning. But the road is blocked by protesters.
We do a U-turn and drive ten minutes around to the other side and get a little closer to the hotel this time. But there is another blockage. Old tires are piled high. Plastic tape is strung into makeshift fencing. There are several checkpoints.
The driver can’t go any further. He turns to look at me in the back of the car. It’s my move.
“Thanks,” I say and get out. As I lift my bag from the trunk, the driver apologizes while protesters watch. He did the best he could so I give him a big tip.
I’d have to go the rest of the way on my own. I’m told the hotel is several hundred meters away, but I can’t see it. And it’s midnight in a city whose government declared a state of emergency. But I’m not scared as I begin to walk.
Getting to Spark Conference
Leading up to my keynote speech at Spark Conference tomorrow morning, I had been in constant touch with @jakrapong, the young entrepreneur Co-founder of ThumbsUp Media who is organizing the event, about the rapidly developing political situation in Bangkok. Even though many of my friends told me not to come to Bangkok (some said I was crazy), I told Jak that if the conference is on, I’d do my best to be there. I monitored the US State Department website for advisories for US citizens and checked mainstream media sources like the BBC.
But the primary reason I decided to make the trip to Bangkok and why I wasn’t worried about my walk to the hotel was because I had been following @RichardBarrow on Twitter. Richard is a full time independent travel blogger based in Thailand and he has been tweeting constant updates about the situation in Bangkok.
Bonus! When news breaks in your expertise
As the news traveled around the world that protesters were blocking traffic in Thailand, Richard knew that it a perfect opportunity to be the eyes and ears on the ground of travelers, expats, and the media regarding the real situation in Bangkok. Richard broadcast in real time as the situation changed on an hourly basis.
One of the most important news stories in the world was exactly in Richard’s area of expertise.
“I started tweeting back in February 2010 when there were protests in Bangkok,” Richard tells me. “I had just bought my first smartphone and one of my first tweets was a protest march into Bangkok. I tweeted pictures and live updates of the progress of this march and the affects on the traffic. Over the following days, weeks and months I visited the rally sites and did live updates from each area. At this time, Twitter was a godsend for expats and tourists in Bangkok as all of the news coming out was mainly in the Thai language. So, besides my own eyewitness accounts, I also translated updates from the Thai media. That was when I first started to get a large following.”
As the news of this round of protests was unfolding and I was considering my journey to Bangkok, I knew that the news about the protests would be distorted in several ways. Because it is a political situation, local news media that is translated into English might carry a pro-government or pro-protester slant. International media tend to focus on the worst of events like this so I was wary of sensationalism distorting the media reports about what was going on. And many of the stories from international media were not from people actually on the ground so couldn’t really be trusted.
That’s why Richard was my primary source as someone who is here in the city and who understands travel. And he is also a primary source of the media. For example, he created a real-time map which many media pointed to such as this from Huffington Post. Bangkok Protests Map Informs Tourists Of Areas To Avoid
“This new round of protests has been a bit different,” Richard says. “This time the protests have been taking place at multiple locations around Bangkok at the same time. In addition they have been mobile. As there are far more Thai media personal on Twitter these days, I was able to set up a digital office. I then collected all these reports coming in, processed them (decided which were reliable) and then translated them into English before sending them out to my followers. I also received many live reports from citizen journalists (expats and tourists), which I then redistributed to my followers. Every now and then, I would also visit the rally sites on my bicycle to do live updates to Twitter.”
What fascinates me about this story is how anybody can all of a sudden be in the absolute center of the world’s attention. It’s like a mega version of newsjacking except you’ve already got a following for that particular expertise. It is a perfect opportunity to greatly expend your influence - if you're quick and willing to work hard.
Richard has armed himself out with technology to report in real time including a drone aircraft used to get aerial shots of protests, which he brings with him to rally sites on his bike.
“Technology has improved a lot compared to the 2010 protests,” Richard says. “Battery life was the main problem back then. These days we have battery packs that can keep us going for several days. I also have a DSLR this time with WiFi. So I can zoom in more easily and then have the pictures uploaded live to Twitter. 3G has also been a lot of help as we can more easily upload pictures and video to social media. But, at some of the main rally sites, so many protesters are uploading selfies to Facebook that the network slows to a crawl at times. Another improvement for me in reporting is my quadcopter. I can send this up above the crowd, which does a better job of crowd estimate. The pictures can then be sent live on social media. All of this new equipment goes into my backpack and I can still be mobile and cycle between protest sites.”
Richard’s updates have captured the attention of the world’s media. Reporters around the world including CNN, The Telegraph, Huffington Post, The New York Times and many others follow him and use his updates in their stories.
“Twitter has been invaluable for expats and tourists in Bangkok as it gives instant updates to the situation from numerous people around the city,” Richard says. “We no longer have to rely on the traditional news media to tell us what is going on. We are organizing it ourselves now.”
Because of Richard’s fantastic coverage and the assurances from Jak that it is safe to hold the Spark Conference, I’m not scared as I walk to my hotel. I reach the security checkpoint and thank the security guard as he finishes examining my bags and lets me pass.
I could have cancelled the trip. I could have stayed home. I could have disappointed Jak and a thousand attendees of Spark Conference. I might have let fear control me. But Jak and Richard (and social networking) got me to Bangkok.
Sooner or later the world will be interested in your area of expertise
As news breaks in a subject you have a great deal of knowledge of you have an amazing opportunity to seize the moment in real time and share your thoughts with the world.
If you’re agile like Richard, you can become the global source of what’s really happening. And that means for years to come you’ll be seen as a trustworthy and reliable source of news, just like Richard is on what’s really happening in Bangkok and Thailand.