Social Media: bringing people together in times of crisis

During this spell of icy weather (is it Winter Break II or Early Spring Break?) I’ve been getting over a horrible upper respiratory infection, which gave me the perfect excuse to wallow on the couch with blankets, cats and a laptop, monitoring the cable news channels and social media.  Just the way any modern AARP member spends her time off, right?
Between naps and doses of Mucinex, I noticed something.  There have been many articles written about how social media supposedly isolates us.  One of my students, Pelpina Trip, blogged about a new book by Sherry Turkle called “Alone Together” and went on to quote an interesting Pew Research study about social media. 
I’m with Pelpina, and Pew, on this topic.  Yes, it’s annoying to be around people glued to their laptops, tablets and mobile devices to the exclusion of the people around them.  I’m getting a lower tolerance for rudeness even as I tweet and text from restaurant tables while conversing with my husband or friends. 
But I think overall, social media can be a great unifier.  While lounging on the couch waiting for the world to thaw out I’ve experienced and commented on the uprising in Egypt, heard people complain about the rolling blackouts that left them freezing in the dark, exchanged energy conservation tips,  learned which restaurants and stores were open in Denton, shared snarky comments about the Super Bowl and helped students with assignments.  I’ve rearranged guest speakers for my class, given shout outs to colleagues who are doing heroic work in the bad weather, and whined with friends all around the country as we deal with this horrible winter storm. 
My first year out of college I went through a blizzard in Indianapolis.  It was the winter of 1978, and I was among a team of about 30 people that kept Channel 13 in Indy on the air for 4 days. We suspended union work rules so that every task was covered, slept in shifts in the hotel across the street or in sleeping bags in offices (the mayor of Indy spent one night on a couch in our lobby), and we pulled together as a team to keep the information flowing to a city paralyzed under 3 feet of snow and near-zero temperatures.  There was no internet, no Twitter, no social media of any kind.  We had land lines and “film at 11.” It was primitive by today’s standards—no live shots of reporters freezing on highway overpasses and stating the obvious, just good solid information sharing to keep people alive and comfortable.  People around town phoned the station to tell us what was going on, what stores were open, who needed help, which stores had gasoline or milk or baby formula, and we passed it on to the viewers.  The National Guard put snow plows on tanks.  I couldn’t find my car for 3 days and it took a week to dig it out, and then it had to be towed to the shop for repairs.  That’s life in the rustbelt.
Why am I telling you this?  Because what we did at WTHR in Indy was exactly what social media has done during this storm and its aftermath—we shared useful information with people who needed it, and we were occasionally entertaining.  And people like me, sniffling and lying on the couch, felt connected to the world by the touch of communications.  Social media is an extension of that—it’s more personal than an exhausted anchor in a newsroom passing along information, and it doesn’t require the filter of an assignments editor.  You can converse with multiple people at once and share diverse points of view, without editing by a media gatekeeper.  It’s info from a friend—real or electronic—and it makes you feel connected and whole.  That’s what the global village is all about.

3 thoughts on “Social Media: bringing people together in times of crisis

  1. Sarah Kathryn February 8, 2011 / 11:13 am

    I feel that social media is isolating in the fact that many of the younger population are not learning to communicate face-to-face. This has been an increasing problem through the years.

    I feel if we could have media “time-outs” for them once a week where they are not allowed to text, tweet or post it might help their communication.

  2. chicknamedd February 4, 2011 / 4:16 pm

    Bufkins, this is kind of what I just blogged about on Eagle Strategies. There's always been a noisy neighbor wanting to know all the gossip in town, people have always wanted to show their photos from trips and experiences, people need to relay information and it's the same thing with social media. It's the medium not the content. SM has just made it easier and a more instantaneous action.

  3. Brandon February 4, 2011 / 12:42 am

    Ah, the lovely reference to Marchall McLuhan's global village. Staying connected, or in your words unifying is what social media is all about. Many blogs, books and professionals hype the business/strategic aspect of social media, claiming wonders of reaching the masses like never before. But social media is also a way to stay connected and to feel more or less a part of the world.

    Before, high school friends were nothing more than a fuzzy memory. Before, news updates from Egypt were solely one-way communications. Before, complaining about a restaurant meant nothing more than dark ink on trash paper.

    Now: nostalgia can be filled with “pokes” from Facebook; protesters from across the globe can voice their support for Egypt; Chipotle will even offer you a free burrito for your bad experience.

    With all the time wasted waiting, we can now spend staying connected. Some may claim this to be “isolating” as we stare at at our phones. Others may say we are captive to the social media we use.

    Regardless if you use it to lull reality or to delve further in, social media is here to stay (and I wouldn't have it any other way!)Why resist the connection when all you have to do is gain?

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