Social media usage following the Christchurch earthquake

A few random thoughts on some of the applications of social media following the Christchurch earthquake. I’ll attempt a more meaningful formulation soon.

In the first minutes, real-time tools like Twitter and TwitPic really came into their own. First the news broke that a major quake had occurred. Reports followed of its magnitude, and then the first pictures and videos started to come in. Within 15 minutes, #eqnz had become the accepted hashtag. Despite the massive fragmentation of sources, thousands of people all over the world were watching the story evolve in real-time, reading the same tweets and viewing the same images.

In those first minutes, the thing most people were concerned about was finding out what the hell was going on. As such, open and real-time were absolute requirements. Several people and organisations recommended Facebook pages as useful resources, but in this instance they were way off the mark. I don’t want to become a fan of (sorry, ‘like’) a page in order to report a missing pet or loved one, and I want my plea for help to have the widest possible audience – not just people who have also signed up to that page.

It was interesting to once again observe a kind of passive aggressive turf war between proponents of alternative hash tags. #eqnz emerged almost immediately, followed by the Earthquake Commission’s proposed #chch. Why the hell they felt the need to upset the apple cart is beyond me.

I’ve read a few posts lately with people bitching about the continued use of the now-defunct ‘RT @…’ method of retweeting. Personally I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, and really didn’t give a toss one way or the other until yesterday. Looking through the #eqnz stream in search of new information was a nightmare, due to the thousands of RT-style retweets that would otherwise have appeared as a simple numerical increment appended to the original tweet. RT-style retweets enter the stream in the same fashion as the original, but with a later time stamp. When people are looking for real-time information, wading through thousands of hour-old (oh, how our expectations have changed) posts is a painful and unnecessary drag. I’ll never use the RT style again. Who’s with me?

It seems every man and his dog tried to get their favourite celebrities to retweet links to the NZ aid organizations, and many did so (Kudos to Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Stephen Fry. Screw you, Oprah). I can’t help but wonder if these pleas were a genuine attempt to leverage star power in a time of need, or a sad form of 21st century autograph hunting. Nobody collects signatures anymore – it’s all about @ replies and retweets, don’t you know. Does it matter? No, but it’s interesting to me at least.

Within minutes of the first pictures of the collapsed Christchurch cathedral coming out, its Wikipedia page and image had been updated to reflect its current condition. Not only that, Wikipedia administrators had flagged the image as a candidate for removal due to its dubious copyright status. Wikipedia is such an efficient animal, especially in times like this (reminded of similar instances in the case of Steve Irwin’s death, and Pluto’s demotion to non-planet status). This never ceases to amaze and impress me.

Once the mainstream news organisations started to get a handle on this situation – for the first couple of hours they were essentially re-publishing information and images sourced from Twitter – social media usage seemed to shift into recovery mode. People wanting to locate missing loved ones were tweeting their names and possible locations, and people on the ground were attempting to find them. Several wiki and wiki-like projects kicked in, creating centralized registers of the missing and the found. Wikis were an ideal technology to use now, to balance out the noise and evanescence of the Twitter stream.

The utility of some of these digital tools also provided a way for concerned people all over the world to get involved. I looked across my office at one point and saw a colleague scanning the Twitter stream for reports of missing people, updating a missing persons’ wiki. Around a dozen people were working simultaneously. Where and who were the others? I have no idea. It doesn’t matter.

Misinformation is always a challenge with social media, and yesterday was no different. When reports came in of damage to the Christchurch cathedral, the accompanying pictures were actually of a different church that had been totally destroyed. Some well-meaning soul assumed blood would be in demand, and put the word out that donations were urgently required. The resulting flood of offers – not needed, thanks to regular donors such as myself – placed undue pressure on the Blood Service, who were forced to divert attention from their task at hand and respond with their own assurances that blood stocks were fine and dandy. It’s not all bad news though – because the misinformation was largely on Twitter, the Blood Service was prompted to create their own account (@nzblood) in order to join the conversation. Here’s hoping they stick around.

Misinformation is by no means the sole domain of social media. Last night I was appalled to see TV3 news anchor Hilary Barry announce ‘unconfirmed reports’ of a death toll as high as 300 to 400 people. Unconfirmed reports? Why not preface with ‘a bloke in the pub told me’? If this is what counts as journalistic integrity in the 21st century it’s no wonder the old media establishments are struggling. If I’m going to soak up a bunch of speculation and heresay I might as well get it for free and without a 15-second ad at the start.



2 Responses to “Social media usage following the Christchurch earthquake”

  1. 1 Fogwoman Gray February 23, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    I think the power of harnessing your favorite celebrity in a situation like this is more about saturation and numbers. Nobody familiar with Twitter is going to be impressed that you follow Neil Gaiman. If he follows YOU maybe 🙂
    But the fact is that when Neil Gaiman retweets something, over 1.5 million people worldwide potentially see it. This makes things happen via crowdsourcing that might not if I just send a note to my Aunt Edna and her pinochle club.
    Watching everything from Twitter to Google maps being used as tools is indeed amazing, what a time to be living on earth.

    • 2 Stuart Parker February 24, 2011 at 6:46 am

      Good point. Like I said in the intro, a few random thoughts requiring further consideration, and on reflection I’m not sure the celeb stalking bit stands up – although I will confess to a sense of glee that several people I greatly admire acquiesced to my own RT requests.

      That said, I think I’m more impressed by the fact that they (ok, possibly their reps but let’s not piss in the punchbowl) actually read and respond to @ replies. Many celebs boast massive followings yet follow few and respond to nobody. I wouldn’t criticize, but those that do listen and respond get an extra tick and a gold star from me.

      We do indeed live in interesting times.

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