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.”