Top Five SMEM Lessons Learned in 2012: The Public Uses Social Media

The first step in my lessons learned from seeing social media being used in emergencies this year is kind of a no-brainer. Anyone reading this either uses social media, understands social media or thinks something can be gained by using social media. So it’s kind of a cop-out, but that’s not all there is about this lesson learned.

What’s obvious to you and me today wasn’t always this way; in fact, I got the opportunity to travel all over the country talking about social media to smart folks who still thought it was a fad or something that wouldn’t affect their responses. I could tell folks stories about Flight 1549, or crowd mapping in Haiti, or the Virginia Tech shooting, and describe how–when those things happened in their neck of the woods–they’d be forced to deal with it, too.

I like to think I helped open the eyes of emergency managers, if not selling them on the idea, then at least making them more aware of the role of social media during the next disaster. And it seemed like every disaster this year had its social media side of the story. The culmination of this trend was during Hurricane Sandy. It seemed like the story of the Superstorm (regrettably) was the social media angle, and not the much more interesting recovery aspect. This was the disaster that finally proved to emergency managers that social media was a great and growing part of what they needed to deal with during an emergency. Not Aurora, not the March tornadoes, not the election.

What those emergency managers who finally accepted that the world was changing found when they started researching the topic was that much of the literature surrounding the topic was already being written, and it supported what they were seeing. The American Red Cross, in addition to the development of their Disaster Operations Center, published their second survey on the use of social media by the public. But at the same time, the scholarly literature has begun to demonstrate the utility, too. Even the very useful Pew Internet and Nielsen surveys have begun demonstrating how great a change we’re undergoing.

The why is just as important to me (sociologically trained) as the what. You can see the why in the Pew and Nielsen surveys: people use social media for everything. It’s the new water cooler; it’s the new over the back fence; it’s how we talk to family and friends anymore. And psychological research has shown us that people, in crisis situations, need to confirm that the situation is actually happening before acting. (Seriously, read The Unthinkable.) If we talk to friends and family every day online, why would we look elsewhere for confirmation of a crisis?

The public has integrated social media into their lives. The fruits of that integration are demonstrated during every disaster anymore. Ignoring the state of the world is, for an emergency manager, tantamount to malfeasance. Our greatest lesson learned this year is that we can no longer ignore social media or keep it out of our planning.


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