Day Fifteen: Tweets falling on cedars

The other day I briefly touched on the idea that social media is no longer just the stuff of the idle-minded. It’s a increasingly important venue for huge aspects of our lives. Put aside the idea of staying in touch with long-lost friends, or viewing pictures of a wedding you were unable to attend. Social media is now an avenue for the BIG stuff.

This weekend, my lovely little state of Connecticut was struck with an unprecedented snow storm. Half the state slipped into darkness as heavy snow and wind ripped down trees and power lines. This is the outtage map from Connecticut Light and Power as of this morning.

CL-P Outtage Map

Festively colored for Halloween

I have friends up in that black hole of the north-western state. But I know they’re okay. I know they’ve cleared their roads, and plan on making it to the nearest shelter to warm up. I’ve offered them my house, but they can’t make it down here. I also have not picked up the phone.

As the storm raged that night, my feed on Facebook was flooding. Each person instantly grabbed their cell phones and started updating. I knew who lost power and when, where the trees went down, and where the power lines had been spotted. I was lucky enough to hold on to power, and was able to watch the local news. As more and more of the state went dark, the newscasters encouraged folks to get on Facebook and Twitter to follow updates from an official source.

The day after the storm the pictures started coming in. Lovely, glistening snow over cracked and shattered trees. CL-P is trending on Twitter in my area as natives, local news outlets, and businesses keep up a tight network of information on who has power, and when we might expect it back.

What would we do without social media in emergencies? As my home state of Vermont was devasted by Tropical Storm Irene’s flooding at the end of August, I immediately turned to Facebook to check on friends, and gain an understanding of the damage. News outlets can’t give me the level of understanding that comes from the post of someone who just fled their house.

That brings up an interesting thought. Why would someone who had just fled their house even think about updating their Facebook status? Why would you waste your precious cell phone battery accessing the Internet to tweet about a downed power line? Because that’s how we survive. We’ve shifted our communities and our networks online. We’re not always next to a television, or a radio, but more and more of us are constantly linked to wireless device.

Check out this really compelling graphic  that focuses on emergency communications in social media. I find it utterly fascinating. Nothing spreads information faster than the Internet. If you can get one tweet sent, someone else can re-tweet it to thousands, who re-tweet it again, and, who knows, maybe save a few lives. I remember when the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks took place. My college had a sister campus in the city. During the attacks, students warned each other where there was danger. Twitter was essential for determining the safety of students. Traditional news agencies just can’t always move fast enough. 

So we have the birth of citizen journalists. There is, of course, downsides to this. Individual users see very small portions of a crisis. That one cell phone picture might not be an accurate portrayal of the events at hand. Inaccurate information can be sent out. However, I can’t help but think that the pros are much greater than the cons. Think of Wikipedia. In school, we were warned to death about using the site, as it was created by, “normal,” people who can post false information. I never fully bought that idea. If you let everyone share their information, inaccurate facts are ripped down almost immediately. Corrections are made before the problem is even realized.

The same principle applies to emergency response through social media. With thousands of average-joes on the case, we’re able aid in mapping damage, updating news sources, and checking in on our loved ones. While I still don’t think we should be replacing a call to 911 with a tweet to the local news, I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that every person with a cell phone has now become essential to crisis management.

And you thought the Facebook was just for Justin Bieber fans…

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