From the moment the first jolt was felt in Tokyo, there was no doubt — the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent tragedy was going to play out first on the social web, and second on television.
Within an hour of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake, which occurred on a bright afternoon in Japan, Twitter updates were flying out of Asia at the rate of over 1,200 per minute, while Facebook posts, photos, videos, and blog updates were streaming in just behind.
As my CNN News alert hit my iPad, my first inclination wasn’t to turn on the TV, but rather go to the Facebook walls of my many friends in Tokyo to see if they were alright. The immediacy of the information flowing out of Asia took on a much more personal tone, as I was able to know instantly that eight of my nine friends had checked in to let their friends and family know they were OK.
This cultural shift can be seen throughout the web connected world, and every future “felt around the world” moment will bring us closer to this event horizon, where the news on television becomes secondary to finding out if our personal network is intact. In essence, we’re moving back toward a community model, where news comes not from a stranger on television, but from people we trust because we know them personally.
The phone call that used to take days — the “I’m OK, we just got phone service back” moment that felt like it took forever — has been shrunk to minutes, if not seconds in some cases. While it’s painfully obvious that the level of “global connectivity” hasn’t truly been reached in every part of the world yet, no one can deny that the proliferation of even the most basic mobile phones, even to areas without full electricity or plumbing, has made the ability to get critical information out that much faster, to a much more global audience.
With that awesome ability, however, comes responsibility. With everyone having the power to be their own “Anderson Cooper,” the job of getting out information to the world comes with clearly defined rules and objectives.
Family and Friends First
For hundreds of thousands of people, the simple act of pressing “send” on an “I’m OK” text message was the start, and a good one at that. One of the biggest problems with natural and man-made disasters is the immediacy of “aloneness,” as it were.
“Do people know I’m here?” “Does my family know I’m safe?” If you speak to survivors of natural disasters, almost all of them list that feeling of isolation as the key psychological barrier, even more so than the pain of losing their belongings. As the communication networks get stronger, the first message of our survival will be able to reach those closest to us, and the connection will provide information, updates, and yes, even companionship, digital as it might be. Knowing “I’m not alone” has saved many lives when those lives had nothing else to live for at that moment.
Report What You Know, Avoid What You Don’t
The odds of finding a cell phone in an industrialized nation without a camera in it are extremely small. This means that everyone can generate content with the push of a button. But we must be careful of the content we generate, and that which we pass along. Confirm your information.
A steam pipe explosion, like the kind that hit midtown Manhattan a few years back, can look to the untrained eye like a massive bomb has just decimated the entire block. Remember that what you post will be reposted, and there is no “Back” button once you hit send. The latest updated information is critical, and should be shared, but it’s our job to do so responsibly, to check our sources, and to confirm our facts before we post with reckless abandon. Not only can posting inaccurate information do great harm to those inside and even outside of the crisis zone, but it will also greatly diminish the level of trust people have for your future updates. Lose credibility, and you will simply be ignored.
In January 2010, an unattended bag was left in Grand Central. For New Yorkers, that was called “Wednesday.” But thanks to the over-zealous tweeting of a few people in Manhattan, the bomb squad was called, Grand Central was evacuated, and “Explosion and fire in Grand Central” flew around Twitter at the speed of light. None of it was true. Be aware of what you post.
Think Before You Share
Whether you like it or not, you’re now a historian, as well as a part of history. Remember that before you hit “share.” How do you want to be remembered? Whatever you share can be taken out of context. Something non-relevant — a sarcastic comment, even something you find humorous — while accepted by your “network,” can scale to huge proportions and reach a massive group of people who don’t know you, but only know what you sent. We’ve all done it, but now we need to be smarter.
You simply must pause and think before you submit content to the world, no matter how innocuous you think it might be. In a crisis, people are hungry for information. What you feed them will determine your destiny as well, whether in the middle of the fight, or thousands of miles away.