Social Media To The Rescue!

July 15, 2013

George Packer penned a scathing depiction of tech culture in Silicon Valley in “The New Yorker” not long ago. Packer says Facebook and Twitter suffer from acute cases of savior complex.

His critique comes at a time when social media is being praised by users and policymakers for its value and usefulness in the heat of major crises.

Hurricane Sandy, the Haiti earthquake, the Boston Marathon bombing, tornadoes in Oklahoma and many other natural and man-made disasters have seen social networking play a major role in emergency response. It’s little surprise then that legislators, social media experts and users are looking to formalize and expand the of role social networks during disasters. They’re turning their attention to developing existing networks or creating new ones altogether to provide a space dedicated explicitly to relief and support coordination.

The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management is leading the charge. Erlier this year it announced plans to launch SF72, a web-based gathering place that aspires to organize Bay cats to be prepared for 72 hours of emergency preparedness after natural or other disasters. They introduce themselves in a video called, “This is Our City”:

The site would imitate relief and outreach efforts spurred by individuals in previous emergencies—databases of people volunteering first aid services, transportation or shelter and embedded RSS feeds for tips, encouragement and displays of solidarity.

Some observers cast the use of social networks during emergencies a s a recent trend, but in truth, harnessing web platforms for emergency coordination and support is not such a new trend after all. One of Fast Horse’s clients, the Minnesota-based nonprofit, CaringBridge, for example, was founded in 1997 — years before Facebook and Twitter got going. Its mission is to provide micro-sites for users whose loved ones are experiencing health crises. Friends and families can be invited to these forums where users share status updates, photos and words of support. Today the organization boasts a global reach and millions of visitors.

It’s no far stretch to predict how headlines such as “Twitter to the rescue” (Al-Jazeera) and “When social networking saved lives” (“Mother Nature”) might induce a little hubris in the company culture of prominent social networking sites.

But bloated egos aside, it’s difficult to contest the incredible and uplifting impact these resources have provided to millions, if not billions, of people the world over in times of need and upheaval.

Though Packer’s insights are poignant, he turns a blind eye to the feats of social networks that might justify some of the arrogance he disdains in the Facebook and Twitter office cultures. These sites have become a conduit for heroic efforts on scales both grand and small. But it’s also worth noting that the true heroism stems from the users—the individuals who have applied their creativity and compassion to transform existing media into a virtual refuge.