When hurricane Sandy hit the east coast last month, millions of people had to sit in literal and figurative darkness as the water raised high enough to displace cars and destroy homes. For those who faced the worst circumstances, reaching local emergency response was almost impossible because of the volume of calls. As we continue to piece the east coast back together and marvel at the damage, one thing is certain; this is going to happen again. It could be another storm, or an earthquake, or an uncontrollable fire, but sooner or later we will again be reminded how fragile we are without power, internet, gas and the other comforts we take for granted. Luckily, one of our greatest resources has recently proven reliable – social media. Had it not been for Twitter, which provided mobile updates on storm conditions and even allowed users to tweet at Fire Departments to report emergencies, countless people would have been left terrified and helpless. Sandy displayed how valuable social media can be as a crisis-response tool, and also what steps we need to take to fully leverage it and best prepare ourselves for the future.
For starters, protecting cell signals and wireless internet should be atop the preparation list for cities facing foreseen disasters. Connectivity allows people to fulfill their natural desire to help one another in times of need, which in essence dramatically grows the disaster response staff. Next, Twitter needs to be able to regulate content in times of crisis. While national and local news sources provide factual updates that have the potential to manage hysteria and save lives, too many irresponsible users flood the platform with false claims and doctored images without realizing the impact on those in need. Law enforcement services should be involved in this process because inciting fear and panic is a crime, and strict penalty is the only way to discourage those behaviors. A clean, reliable news stream will allow governments to direct as many people to safety as possible.
It doesn’t stop at Twitter; Foursquare can alert users to rescue/shelter area locations, and let those who check-in know if they have friends there to support them. It’s a terrifying experience to be laying in a high school gymnasium during a catastrophe wondering what’s going on outside, and the value of companionship during those times is immeasurable.
Finally, a disaster doesn’t end when the weather clears up or the dust settles. The day after the storm, millions took to Facebook to alert their communities that they were fine, displaying Facebook’s ability to serve as a post-disaster role call mechanism. As Twitter becomes more and more crucial for crisis response, Facebook will feel a competitive and moral need to follow suit. When future disasters clear, Facebook can geo-target those who may have been affected and encourage them to alert their social graphs that they are safe.
As we so often hear, social media is the digital representation of the real world. Humans want to be together, and when something terrible happens and inhibits that, social platforms will be there to support us. I’m sure Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg didn’t see themselves as lifesavers, but as social media evolves, they have that potential. By recognizing it and preparing ourselves to take full advantage, we can maximize the impact on communities, support those in need and save lives.