Monday, May 19, 2008

Social Media In Times of Crisis

It is impossible to listen to the news without hearing about the tragedies following the earthquake in China and the cyclone in Myanmar. One feels powerless and helpless, faced with the magnitude of suffering -- but surely not as much as those directly affected by the natural disasters. 

Strange enough, I had just been working on a presentation for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) about the use of social media in times of crisis. For the past four years I have been partnering with the crisis communications expert Jim Lukaszewski to do these Webinars where Jim discusses the importance of first response, crisis messaging and use of dark sites and I give examples of how companies and organizations use the Web to respond to crises. Sadly, this year I am not short of disaster response examples. 

I had come up with the idea of looking at the use of social media in times of crisis, following a Katrina-related research project I had worked on with my colleague Moon Kim.  We were struck by the way NOLA bloggers were able to report from the ground while traditional journalists couldn't gain access to some parts of the affected area. 

I've been clipping examples and related research since then, noticing how bloggers are deftly using their writing pads, twitter accounts, call-to-action buttons and other widgets to raise awareness about crises and issues. In fact, I just added the button that will take you to a list of ways you can help victims in China. It is created by Ryan McLaughlin, a prolific expat blogger based in Suzhou. I reached Ryan in two clicks, after looking up the words "China," "earthquake," "blog" on a search engine. This little search is a testament to the connecting power of the Web. 

For those interested in reading more on the topic and reviewing scientific data on how social media outlets can be effective and accurate in reporting crises and discussing the aftermath, I highly recommend papers written by Assistant Professor Leysia Palen and her colleagues from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Their review of Facebook, Wikipedia and forum activities following the Virginia Tech tragedy and California wildfires are intriguing accounts of how social technology can be used to save lives, appease worries and confirm facts. 

There has been some criticism of social media reporters for propelling rumors by making hearsay statements. However, as Palen's research shows, open-source forums are self-corrective. Even if readers come across a questionable statement or factoid, they are in a position to dig further, post questions and get an answer -- fast. 

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