Searchlight

Power of social media, technology irrefutable in times of crisis

Karen Goulart, Senior Features Writer

About six months ago in Searchlight, though it feels more recent, I wrote about the positive role of technology before, during and after Hurricane Sandy. With the aid of technology

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and power of social media, this devastating event was something people could -- and did -- try to prepare for. It helped people keep informed as the storm barreled through the Northeast and connected people looking for loved ones or those in need of help once the skies cleared.

Karen Goulart

Sometimes we hem and haw (myself included) about the ways social media is ironically making us unsocial, separating us from each other. We are forgetting how to talk to each other. We're more interested in our smartphones than our dinner companions. We're losing our humanity.

Indeed, it often seems that way.

On Monday afternoon I was tapping away on a story about insourcing. Looking out the window from my home office my eyes rested on a hedge of fiery yellow forsythias -- just like the ones that lined the sidewalk in front of my former home in Brookline, Mass., just over the Boston border. I felt a pang of nostalgia for all the Marathon Mondays I had spent on the stoop with friends, short-sleeved in the sunshine, enjoying the spectacle. Boston is glorious in the springtime. I wished I were there.

Soon after snapping back from this daydream an instant message popped up on my screen. It was my brother: "Two explosions at end of marathon?"

And at that moment, 260 physical miles away, I was digitally whisked back home. I furiously typed #bostonmarathon into Twitter. I clicked open bookmarks to news sites and did a Google news search. I went to Facebook and asked friends to check in and saw others doing the same -- every new notification inspiring a twinge of panic, gratefully followed by relief. Thank goodness for social media.

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And now, it's 3 a.m. on Friday. Just hours after suspects' photos hit airwaves and websites, police are in pursuit. I've been back at my computer for nearly two hours because TV is well behind on the details that friends living amidst the unfolding chaos are tweeting and posting on Facebook. I'm watching, listening, reading in real time as this nightmare may be coming to some horrible denouement. With each new bit of information, I'm forced to wonder what is true. I'm prone to believe most folks out there want to be right, and are doing this -- wittingly or not -- to give the comfort that knowledge provides. So, for now, I am counting social media as a blessing again.

This week's Searchlight highlights the power of social media and maybe why, while we don't need smartphones at the dinner table, they are indispensable vessels at times like this. Leading off is an item which questions whether crowdsourcing and the social media could solve this heinous crime. It certainly is reporting it.

  • Time will tell the ultimate significance of the role they played, but even before they were identified, crowdsourcing and social media tools were front and center in the search for suspects.
  • During Hurricane Sandy, Google rushed to make available its emergency public alerts application. On Monday, the search giant reactivated Person Finder an open source Web app that allows people to register and search for lost loved ones during catastrophic events.
  • Thanks to Reddit, an IT administrator from California and computer programmer from Oklahoma, were able to organize participants from around the world to donate pizza, food and drinks from a little shop in Cambridge, Mass. for emergency workers and displaced marathoners.
  • The pizzas were just one of many examples of folks reaching out a helping hand, as seen when some content aggregators put aside their usual lists of cute animals to bring attention to acts of kindness.
  • Private housing sites like AirBNB and HomeAway set up emergency pages and waved usage fees for marathon runners and visitors to Boston in need of a place to stay.
  • Through YouTube, the world can see this representation of Boston, a city of strength and resiliency.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, features writer.