How Social Media Has Changed How We Experience a Disaster

What if social media existed on Sept. 11, 2001? How would the day and following weeks have been different?

What if social media existed on Sept. 11, 2001?Click To Tweet

I found myself contemplating this while watching the significance social media played in the Harvey disaster. Unlike other situations where social media helped to tell the story, with Harvey, we saw it literally save lives. While emergency responders were overwhelmed, a citizen response, organized around social media and other digital tools, saved thousands of lives. I think it was Brian Stelter who I heard describe Harvey as the “social media disaster” because we saw it play a role unlike in previous disasters, and we may forever view it as a case study for crises to come.

Unlike other situations where social media helped to tell the story, with Harvey, we saw it literally save lives.Click To Tweet

9-11. It’s a day that often hijacks my memory, aided by my personal experiences and now passing the memorialized footprints of the towers entering work every day. I worked in the south tower in 1998 and 4 World Trade Center today. In 2001 I worked on 21st Street. I was far from the disaster, but heard the impact of the second plane as I went into work, passing it off as a backfired engine, or car crash. I watched on TV (which we had in our office unlike many) as the first tower fell. I watched, as did people around the world, as thousands of lives were lost. Social media could not have saved anyone that day.

Social media could have connected more people and relieved post-disaster uncertainty, but nothing like what we saw in Harvey. As I watched Irma decimate the Caribbean, and move through Florida, we see the obvious benefits of social media to disseminate information and provide a rare argument for cyberbullying (only in regards to encouraging evacuations), which arguably did save lives.

But, hey, lifesaving is a pretty high bar to set for social media. What about the other opportunities it offers? Let’s take 9-11 for instance. There are three main areas I think we may have benefited, and two that may have made things worse.

Safety Check: A wonderful tool from Facebook that would have reduced the worry for many trying to locate friends and loved ones. With the touch of a button (and assuming a signal, which was not a given that day) one person could let people know they got out.

Farewells: When you think about what images we may have seen from inside the building, the mind can go to dark places quickly. While some were able to get through for one last moment, imagine the emotional videos, posts and stories we would have witnessed in those moments shared with the world. We should also be careful what we wish for.

Organization: Having gone through safety drills in 4WTC, I don’t think social media would be where people go in the moment to get out, but rather in the days that followed. Volunteers who were making sandwiches on the Westside Highway for those on the “pile” could have had even more hands, supplies, and hugs.

Fake News: I wouldn’t expect sharks photoshopped in the street, but there have been conspiracy theories surrounding that day. Beyond the spread of rumors and lies, however, one important aspect I never feel is over-covered is alerting people of scams that are trying to capitalize on tragedy. There was plenty of fraud following 9-11, and we have seen it following Harvey. Social media can make it easier to spread, but should also make it easier to identify and call out to others.

Attention Span: It seems we move on quickly these days from one disaster to the next. Cameras quickly moved from Houston to Miami to cover the next storm. I’m split on social media here. While it sustains a voice for those who are facing a long road to recovery in Houston, it also feels like we are less emotionally invested. Perhaps it is just from living here at the time, but it felt like all the eyes of the world were on lower Manhattan for the weeks that followed. People came together (IRL) to share their experiences. It didn’t come all at once. We shared them with each other over the weeks and months that followed. Would a barrage of social media exhausted us to a point where these shared experiences in person have been less common?

It was late in the afternoon that Tuesday when a man covered in ash with the white of his painting clothes nearly impossible to detect, entered our office. It was our owner’s cousin, who had made the long walk up after escaping the nearby building he was working in that day. It was in seeing his expression that everything quickly took on a greater meaning. I don’t think a selfie on Instagram would have had the same impact.

Social media has changed the way we communicate. Click To Tweet

Social media has changed the way we communicate. While I spend many hours thinking how to harness it for marketing communications, I am amazed when I see the unplanned connections pulled by common purpose that affect lives. It has the potential to bring out the best or worst of us. It is a transparent lens to the most personal moments of our lives, and provides a megaphone for the most extreme voices. It is here to stay, and will ultimately be what we collectively make of it.

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