Social Media Proves Itself as Emergency Tool

From her evacuation site in Birmingham, Ala., the 33-year-old geophysicist told that as an early adopter of Twitter, she realized its effectiveness as an information-dissemination tool in emergencies. In one go, you can share any detail of your life with potentially thousands of people.

At the beginning, she said, some scoffed at mundane Twitter posts about what users ate for lunch or watched on television. But now, more than 300 bloggers comprise a loosely affiliated network and meet annually at a conference called Rising Tide to strengthen the alliance and discuss ways to rebuild the city.

Although not affiliated with Rising Tides, the American Red Cross has also reached out to Louisiana residents through social media services.

Red Cross Updates with Twitter

Through its Twitter stream, the Red Cross provided about 1,200 subscribers with updates about evacuation efforts and shelter capacity.

Although its subscriber base is relatively small (some individual Twitterers have a larger base), the Red Cross said those subscribers often "re-tweet" and forward important information on to others in their own network.

"The great thing about [Twitter], is that your message really grows exponentially," said Laura Howe, senior director for public affairs at the Red Cross, adding that the Red Cross also shares information through YouTube, the photo-sharing service Flickr and an online newsroom.

Other social networking services also helped evacuees remain in touch with friends and family.

In an e-mail, Tulane University freshman John Thompson told that he depended on Facebook to keep track of the new friends that had also fled the city Friday.

To keep its more than 10,000 students abreast of storm developments, the university relied on tweets of its own -- mass text messages with emergency updates.

On the social networking site Ning, a member created a network specifically to aggregate news reports, hurricane alerts, blog posts, tweets, videos and images tagged as a Gustav-related item. Launched in 2004, Ning provides a free platform for anyone to create a network about any topic.

Created with Ning's software, the Gustov Information Center allowed its more than 500 members to not only share information but also conduct online discussions about the areas that were hardest hit, outreach by relief organizations, next steps and other topics suggested by members.

But effective as these online tools were in helping Gustav's victims stay ahead of the storm and in touch with loved ones, they didn't reach large swaths of the New Orleans population.

New Orleans Blogging

Blogger Venkat-Ramani acknowledged that the city is notorious for the yawning income gap between blacks and whites and that disparity has carried over to the Internet and social media.

"There's a huge digital divide. Not just racial but also geographic," she said, adding that the blogging community tends to comprise white, wealthier and more educated New Orleanians.

"We've been thinking about a way to reach out to bring in more African-Americans," she said. "It is the next frontier for New Orleans blogging."

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