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 Twitter 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.”

The Inflection Point

So, yeah, Post-Tropical Superstorm (nee Hurricane) Sandy. That happened. Mostly sucked. Got lots of lessons learned to share. But let’s start with the helicopter/10,000 foot overview.

For those of you who’ve taken communication theory classes (and those of you who have breathlessly read and memorized all of my posts), you’ll be familiar with the idea of diffusion of innovation.

See that point right above the words Take Off? Where the slope of the curve changes (and the artist who made this chart had to change Microsoft Paint curve-y line tools)? In our Diffussion of Innovation theory, that’s called the “inflection point.” It’s the point where growth in adoption starts to slow down, usually because most of the people who would adopt that innovation have already done so. The curve levels off when there is no more adoption (like your grandfather and electronica music, it just ain’t happening).

That inflection point? We’re there in terms of social media adoption by emergency response folks. That’s what Sandy taught me. Everyone that’s ahead of the curve, even just barely, has already accepted that social media is a great and growing part of emergency response and they’ve begun integrating it into their work. The rest of the people who could conceivably start using social media (the emergency managers who just wanted to see some return on investment first, or were just waiting for the go-ahead from the executive) will do so now. Those who refuse out-of-hand will be seen as ineffective and out of touch. And since they all report to some executive (read: person who has to stump for votes and answer to the public), I don’t think they’ll be around much longer.

Why, (I imagine) you say(ing)?

Well, there are a few stories of social media’s impact during and after the storm destroyed wide swaths of North Jersey and New York City.

(Yes, that’s 25 different links, most of them from national media sources, specifically about the social media aspect of the storm–all positive to some extent.)

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a trend.

I think, beyond the obvious implications of actually using social media in emergencies, this event has real consequences for us. You know, the folks that have made a certain number of bones being the social media evangelist in their fields (like me!). No longer can we trot out the same old anecdotes about how one day everyone will be using social media in crises.

We’re there.

We now need to concentrate on teaching how to do it right. How to work with the public, as opposed to just broadcasting to them. How to make #SMEM into an everyday conversation, a key, normal, regular part of what we do before an emergency.