Mapping the social media response

In more news about the impact of social media in the aftermath of natural disasters, Facebook has plotted the spread of status updates to create a map of how news of last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan spread across the social networking site. The maps show the prevalence of the words “Japan”, “earthquake” and “tsunami” in status updates between 10:37 p.m. on Thursday to 12:45 p.m. Friday (PST). They are considered to be the first maps showcasing this kind spread of information on Facebook. You can view the album on Facebook’s Global Disaster Relief page. I also made the images into a video, above, for easier viewing. I’m sure this kind of social media mapping will now become de facto in the wake of any future similar disasters or crises.

Tsunami Aftermath

Devastation caused by the tsunami can be seen in Kesennuma City, Japan. Picture by Reuters.

Not only are social media being used to report on the disaster, but people are turning to social media to coordinate relief efforts. The Los Angeles Times describes how Japanese Americans in the Los Angeles area are turning to the Internet to collect donations and help reunite loved ones. (Read the in-depth article here.) Google has launched a PersonFinder app to help people connect with friends and family in Japan. The app is tracking about 160,900 records of people. Additionally, AT&T has announced that it will not charge users for calls made to Japan through the end of this month.

I think this reliance on social media is evidence of how much humans want to connect with other humans in a time of crisis. Social media help people feel like they are involved in a cause, making a difference in their own small way. This trend of reliance on social media also highlights the usefulness of digital media: In a natural disaster, power lines and phone lines can go down, cell reception gets spotty and overloaded. But the satellites in the sky keep on working, closing the gap between nations — and people.


A tsunami of social media


A view of CNN's iReport feature. You can see they have an "assignment desk" for social media users.

News coverage of the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan highlight more than ever the mainstream news media’s reliance on user-generated social media to tell a story. This phenomenon has even become part of the actual reporting on the tsunami — I just watched a whole report by Josh Levs about social media’s impact on this event on CNN’s TV coverage. According to a December 2010 piece by PBS, Levs is at the forefront of this leverage of social media by the mainstream media. You can read more on his take on social media in the news at the link.

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