Moving Images

I think that one of the main things that really brought the devastation of Post-tropical Superstorm (nee Hurricane) Sandy home in a way that Hurricane Katrina didn’t until several days after socking New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was the pictures.

Think about how we used social media in 2005. Facebook was still just open to folks with a university email address. Blogs were the hot new thing. MySpace ruled the roost. Twitter wouldn’t even exist as Twittr until 2006.

When breaking news happened, we turned on the TV. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, you’ll remember that the media couldn’t get into New Orleans to show us what was happening. Folks like Fox News’ Shepard Smith were the first to actually move around in New Orleans and document the atrociousness of the situation. We, as the public, didn’t become truly invested in what was happening there until we could see it.

Contrast that with what we saw on Monday and Tuesday as Sandy battered North Jersey and New York City. Picture after picture after video after picture. All in real-time. All in shaky format. All heartbreaking. All documenting. All testifying.

Firefighters waist deep in floodwaters

We never needed to become invested in Sandy’s devastation because we lived it. We imagined our family living there. We understood the fear. We wondered why the ambulances outside of NYU were just sitting there and NOT GOING YET!? We hoped people weren’t in those houses with floating pieces of the boardwalk banging against the side.

We didn’t have to wait for the news to get choppered in. We were there thanks to the survivors’ social media feeds.

The evidence for this is all over the Sandy lessons learned articles. Just do a search for Instagram and Sandy online. Mashable posted on this, passing along this quote from Instagram CEO, Kevin Systrom:

Users snapped 800,000 pics tagged with #Sandy, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom said Monday.

The Huffington Post noted that more than 10 images per second with a Sandy-related tag were posted to Instagram per second. And it’s not just a US-based phenomenon, either. Research done by The Guardian on the Queenslands floods showed that images were the most shared type of content out there.

The implications of the wide use of images during a crisis is as profound as the move to using social media itself. We, as emergency responders and crisis communicators, should be aware that any work we’ve done toward developing social media monitoring tools will increasingly become irrelevant. How do you expect to capture an image of your little problem exploding into a full blown crisis with some text-based social media monitoring tool (like Google Alerts, like Tweetgrid, like Topsy, like IceRocket)? How can you monitor social video apps like Bambuser or Viddy or Socialcam to gain situational awareness that your responders can’t get (like what would’ve been very useful in Breezy Point, Long Island)?

I think this development puts us even further behind the curve than we were back when we thought that social media was just a fad. Because back then, only a few people used social media and we could be expected to ignore the early adopters. Today, though? I’ve already shown you that images are the most shared of social media content, and people–in the middle of a freaking hurricane–are posting images in double digits every second. And there’s more than a few people out there that use social media these days. Add one part to the other, multiply by the third…

I don’t think this quote by Systrom will be true for very much longer:

It was “likely the most digitally captured event in history.”


5 thoughts on “Moving Images

  1. Jim,

    Your observations, as usual, are excellent. Couple of thoughts…

    I would disagree that any work done thus far toward developing social media monitoring will become increasing irrelevant; quite the opposite. Those who have engaged earnestly in this process are able to recognize the trend you’ve highlighted, and are probably already trying to figure out how to adapt it into their processes. If there is irrelevancy to be found, it will be from those who thought having a Twitter account was “good enough” (which is the sentiment I’m guessing you probably were thinking in regards to that sentence).

    Insofar as being behind the curve, those of us inclined to assess SM critically and identify how to integrate it into our communications processes will no doubt eventually figure out how to integrate the monitoring of images and video just as we are currently do so with texts, posts, and tweets. My concern, or rather what I perceive to be the next big challenge for emergency managers, is figuring out how to best leverage the firehose of information we’re going to get hit with. [Someone correct me if I’m wrong] I think it was @FireTracker2 and/or @chiefb2 that said the value of #SMEM wasn’t to identify the needle in the haystack, but “to see which direction the haystack is moving”, or “if it’s on fire.” Herein lies an expectation management challenge, in that the public IS expecting us to see and distinguish their “needle” in the pile – and then do something about it. Adding image and videos into that info-stream only compounds that problem to the extent that “yes – here is proof positive of what I tweet! Why aren’t you doing something about it!”

    @PatriceCloutier, among others, has recently proffered that maybe it’s time to bring the PIO down out of the command staff, and create an “Information Section” alongside the other General Staff section Chiefs. I am in complete agreement. Even the perception that a single PIO can perform the functions now encompassed by that role in any incident significant enough to open an EOC or utilize an IMT is folly, no different than thinking a single individual could perform as a one-person Planning Section.

    The question then becomes, how does this function (Information Section) impact the decision making process? After all, that is the crux of our job as emergency managers: making difficult decisions regarding the assignment of finite resources where the demand exceeds the availability.

    The power and value of #SMEM is the two-way engagement; the ability to distribute and receive information. But with that ability comes the responsibility of assessing the incoming information on its potential value towards the decision making process – and that responsibility is neither minor or trivial. Subconsciously, perhaps this is why some emergency managers are so resistant to this (r)evolution in communications. So indeed, I would complete agree that a good portion of the EM community is “behind the curve” not only in its appreciation of the value it can bring into the decision matrix, but more relevantly, in understanding and adapting our current processes so that we can not only separate the wheat from the chaff, but then turn the wheat into bread – so to speak.

    As always, your blog is a beacon of valuable perspective.


  2. As a hopeful crisis communicator some day, I can really appreciate the magnitude of which Instagram and Twitter played on the way we all communicated through Superstorm (nee Hurricane) Sandy. I have many friends and family who live on the coast, and I relied on information through my social media before I turned on CNN of the Weather Channel. I firmly believe people (in general) are fed up with the way that news and information is being served to them, and social media is a way to take that power back.
    I really enjoy your posts, thanks!

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