Why Are We Surprised When People Use Social Media After Disasters?

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Following the devastating earthquake in eastern Turkey yesterday, reports emerged about a variety of technology-enabled responses to the disaster: One tweet garnered 17,000 responses, many of which from people offering their homes to people who had lost their own. Google quickly made its Person Finder service, which was developed following the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, available in Turkish. Facebook became a place where people coordinated aid requests and deliveries.

These stories can be quite powerful, but they are not unique. For every recent disaster -- e.g. HaitiJapanVermontMissouri -- there have been reports of people banding together over social media to lend a hand. 

If the day-after reports of social media relief efforts are now a routine part of disaster reporting that's because these efforts are now a routine response to disaster. But although people are using new tools to coordinate this work, the basic urge to help is not new: As Rebecca Solnit explored in her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, crises and tragedies have a tendency elevate people and forge bonds otherwise impossible. Solnit wrote, "Disaster throws us into the temporary utopia of a transformed human nature and society, one that is bolder, freer, less attached and divided than in ordinary times." She chronicled the "temporary utopias" that emerged in San Francisco after the quake of 1906, Mexico City after an earthquake there in 1885, September 11th in New York, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 

What Solnit saw in those places is exactly what has played out in Vermont, Haiti, Japan, Missouri, and now Turkey, aided by modern communication tools. That people should turn to Twitter and Facebook to facilitate an older instinct should come as little surprise -- these tools are how we communicate, after all. What social media changed is the quantity of people who can be reached, how easily that can happen, and the creation of a public record of these efforts, which lets us all look on.

Image: Reuters.

Following every recent disaster, press reports have chronicled the role of Twitter and Facebook in coordinating relief efforts

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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