Boston bombing showed social media in a crisis
While Facebook, Google and Twitter kept runners, fans and their families informed and in touch, fast-spreading misinformation and publicity ploys exposed their shortcomings.
When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon's Boylston Street finish line on Monday, people who had friends or loved ones in Boston weren't fearing for their investments, worrying about U.S. retail or wringing their hands over how companies would weather an ensuing softening in the market: They wanted to know whether people were alive and safe.
The companies and services that helped spread that essential information were the ones that mattered in the immediate wake of a bombing that left three people dead and nearly 200 more injured. Everything else was noise that needed to be turned down.
As with the shootings at a theater in Aurora, Colo., last summer and the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in December, Americans increasingly turned to social media like Twitter, Facebook (FB), Google+ and Instagram to update information, keep track of loved ones and communicate when other means were unavailable. This time, however, social media got a bit of an assist from both Google (GOOG) and the American Red Cross.
When cellphone service in Boston was slammed and local news providers like Boston.com buckled beneath the traffic, social media sites stepped in to inform people about evacuation routes, medical assistance and places for stranded runners to stay. It also provided a means for people in the city to inform loved ones of both their condition and location in a single post.
Google and the Red Cross took it a step further by offering databases where people in Boston could leave information about their whereabouts and where friends and loved ones could find location and contact information.
Google's Person Finder service, which was used only once before during 2011's Typhoon Sendong in the Philippines, was activated just after the bombings and is still tracking 5,300 people. The American Red Cross' Safe and Well database, meanwhile, allowed people to let others know they were OK but left it up to those registering to decide whether they wanted to include contact and location information.
Even smaller, lesser-known services like Twillo pitched in. The voice-over-IP service let USA Today know it was offering free online calls to anyone in Boston fortunate enough to have bandwidth. The Boston Marathon Tracker, meanwhile, became a means of letting folks with a runner in the race determine whether their runner finished before the explosions and, if not, if they made it to the pickup areas at the Public Garden and Boston Common.
While all of this is still a marked improvement from the news crawls and hand-written missing-persons notices that followed the 9/11 attacks in 2001, it's still not quite a flawless system and can look like a cynical publicity ploy if it's not implemented correctly.
Twitter's usefulness in doling out emergency numbers, initial details and contact information was hampered by misinformation about disrupted mobile service, unexploded devices and investigation reports. As noted by Bill McCandless, who runs video services for sports site Bleacher Report, tweets pre-scheduled on Hootsuite and other services fouled the news feed and reflected poorly on those sending them: "Turn off your scheduled tweets, major brands, don't be that guy."
Writer Matt Roller in Los Angeles may have offered the best summation of the online community's usefulness in a crisis like the one that occurred during the Boston Marathon:
"Twitter does its best work in the first five minutes after a disaster, and its worst in the twelve hours after that."
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