As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”
In my case, I won a Knight News Challenge grant to launch an online, social media reporting network that follows a battalion of U.S. Marines throughout their deployment to southern Afghanistan. (Congratulations! You’ve won a year in Helmand Province, roadside bomb capital of the world…)
Although recently upgraded from “forgotten war” to “central front,” the Afghanistan conflict exists on the periphery of the American consciousness. We’re nearly a decade into the longest war in U.S. history, but most Americans still have a pretty fuzzy idea of what we’re actually doing over there. “Counterinsurgency” is the new buzzword, but if we held a national pop quiz to actually define the term, I don’t expect we’d get good grades.
Beyond social media, this project is really about the simple, literal question: “What are we doing in Afghanistan?”
A Year to Rediscover America
While the public is clearly disconnected, I somehow don’t accept the notion that they aren’t interested — personal experience over the past year tells me the opposite. I spent that year at Stanford on a Knight journalism fellowship — mostly impersonating a college student, but occasionally impersonating an “Afghanistan expert” on the lecture circuit. (Prior to the fellowship, I hadn’t read a lot of books on the subject, but I’d spent years wandering the far reaches of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir as a photographer, sometimes embedded with military forces. My photos have appeared in publications including Time, Newsweek, Outside and National Geographic.).
For the first time I could remember, I spent a solid year in my own country. I saw a lot more of America than I ever had before, I don’t think we’ve got a public that doesn’t care — I think we’ve got a profession that doesn’t know how to communicate.
Flash forward to now, I’m at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina — a week from departure, without so much as a domain name registered. I’m dusting off body armor, scrambling to locate satellite transmitters and solar panels, wondering what I was thinking, and what exactly an “online social media reporting network” looks like, and how I’m actually going to materialize all this vaporware.
As far as I know, the project is a bit of an anomaly in the technology-heavy spectrum of News Challenge winners. It promises no coding, no new widgets or algorithms, and not much that could really pass for a business model.
Ultimately, it comes down to the idea that we could do a lot more with the resources that we already have. Among other things, those resources include communication tools of incredible, and untested reach. (Consider the notion that 50 percent of the activity on the Internet occurs on a single website, Facebook).
To be honest, this thing wasn’t actually my idea, and I had one foot out the door on the Afghanistan business, when I got the call.
The idea came from a Marine I’d met in Afghanistan in 2004. Back then he was a captain, leading a hundred Marines through the mountains in eastern Afghanistan, just a few miles off the Pakistani border. I’d just come out of Iraq, and he was on his way over, and I remember sitting on a hillside, in total darkness one night, telling him what he was in for. I told him Iraq was a lot worse than he’d heard, and it was just starting to slide off the edge. Afghanistan, by comparison, felt like it was on the right track.
I was half right, at least.
He’s a major now, with a mind-bending six tours under his belt. He’s second-in-command of a battalion and about to return to Afghanistan with almost a thousand Marines. And he asked me: Did I want to come along? Would I ride out the entire tour with them?
One of these days, I have to learn how to say no.
Typically, embedded journalists spend a week or two with a military unit, reporting for a news agency or a magazine or a newspaper. The embed slot is like a revolving door, with one media outlet rotating out, as another one rotates in. Correspondents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan work on directives from editors in places like London and New York — and if you’re a photographer like me, you might find yourself in some remote desert or mountain range, hunting for scenes conjured in the imagination of a correspondent in Kabul or Baghdad.
What if we tried a different approach, something both more autonomous, and more collaborative?
Execution and distribution might come down to the question: What’s the social graph of a thousand Marines? I have no idea, but when I run a Facebook app to analyze my own social network, my MacBook spins, chokes, and crashes as it attempts to crunch the data, and plot the connections around a single person. That might just be buggy code over at Facebook, but I’d still guess the numbers surrounding a battalion-strength network of 19 year-olds are some degree of real big.
It may be that the Marine Corps had the same question, because earlier this year, it lifted a long-standing ban on social media for deployed troops. Translation: Marines can tweet and Facebook from Afghanistan.
It’s anyone’s guess what that means practically, especially in a place that doesn’t have a lot of Internet cafes. But it’s worth watching how the military makes use of the social web. So far, on an institutional level, they seem to have made much more effective use of it than the professional media.
More soon from the other side…