Social media and social networks allow people to connect either because of a shared experience, a shared interest, concern, question or problem. Social networks, on one hand, are about connections – they allow people to connect and organise themselves and to keep in touch with people. Online communities, on the other hand, help connect people who share a similar experience, problem or situation.

In Haiti, both these types of social media have been helping victims. From giving them a voice and letting victims tell and share their stories, to providing tools to help find the missing, social media is a valuable tool in dealing with the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. There is much we can learn from this, many great inventions develop from crisis situations and looking at how people in Haiti are using social media.

Three examples of how Haitians are using social media stand out as great examples that we can learn from.

1. Providing a voice for victims

Too often, people object that social media and, specifically, tools like Twitter are full of people updating with seemingly meaningless statuses. This is not true. Twitter, specifically, allows people to share what they are doing or thinking at a particular time. These updates are not intended to be read by all or appreciated by all. But they are and they will be by some.

Twitter has proven to be a particularly important tool getting messages out in a crisis. Allowing those on the ground to inform those elsewhere about what is really happening. We saw this in Iran in the summer of 2009 and have posted before about the benefits (and challenges) of user-generated news.

For the victims of Haiti, social media has enabled them to share their story with the outside world. It makes them feel less isolated by providing them with a way to share what they are experiencing. And it provides us all with a real connection to people on the ground in an earthquake zone. Social media is a great way for people to share information and it really allows people to start to see and experience an event through the experiences of people who are there.

The kind of stories being shared include:

“Just experienced a MAJOR earthquake here in Port au Prince – walls were falling down. – we are ALL fine – pray for those in the slums” troylivesay

“The St Gerard Church has a school behind it that collapsed.I heard someone speaking from the rubble, feet were trapped he couldn’t get out” RAMhaiti

People in the streets are chanting as the night settles.” fredodupoux

2. Informing rescue attempts

Within hours of the earthquake hitting Haiti, victims and their families and friends started to organise themselves using social media tools. A huge task for aid agencies in crises like this is to compile and keep up-to-date a list of people who are missing. Tracking who is missing, who has been found and what their status is.

Social media has been helping with this task in two ways:

  1. Building user-generated lists of the missing. Groups on Facebook has grown to list the missing – with hundreds of thousands of names gathered by people who are missing friends or family. Users update the information they know and together they crowd-source an up-to-date list of the missing
  2. Co-ordinating rescue attempts. Twitter has provided a way for people who are missing to publicise where they are – sharing locations where they are trapped or from where they need rescuing. Using a common hashtag, the missing were able to attract rescuers to come and help them.

Social media is an especially useful tool when a large number of people each know a small piece of information, which when put together build the bigger picture. By getting users to tell us about the information they know and to keep this up-to-date, we can build a larger picture of what is really happening. This can be done with much less effort than trying to build a central picture from scratch.

3. Providing eyewitness content

The first images to emerge from Haiti on Tuesday this week, whilst most news agencies were still waiting for their correspondents to arrive in the country, came from mobile phones and were shared online. In a crisis situation like this, imagery and stories are critical to securing the donations needed to support rescue and relief attempts. And for both of these, time is of the essence. The sooner people donate money, the quicker support can be on the ground. Social media allowed imagery and videos to be shared and distributed more quickly and before some traditional news outlets were on location. It is these images that we have seen on social networks and across the news output and it is these that have prompted many people to donate and support the attempts to bring relief to the country.

Real eyewitness content does not replace balanced and informed reporting by traditional news organisations. But it does have a real role in communicating what is happening and letting people see what those on the ground are seeing. Social media allows these images and eyewitness stories to be spread more quickly than ever before. In a situation where time is critical, this is very important.

Image by United Nations Photo via Flickr

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