Two recent tragedies offer several insights about the integral role that social media plays in modern society, illustrating its power in enabling us to demonstrate the sublime aspects of our humanity as well as the mundane.
The last week of April 2011 in the Southeastern United States was marked by two tragedies: The better-known story is of the powerful storms that swept through several states on the 27th, making it the second-deadliest day of tornadoes in US history. The lesser-known story occurred the day before, when a female eagle was killed by a US Airways jet as it landed at Norfolk International Airport, leaving three young eaglets with only one parent at a crucial stage in their development, and thousands of people – who had been watching the eagle family’s nest at the Norfolk Botanical Garden (NBG) via a webcam – stunned, grief-stricken, and worried (Click here to learn more about the nest and its history. Click here to read my previous blog post about the NBG eagle community).
These events may not have the scale and scope of disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan earlier this year, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, or the hurricane in New Orleans in 2005, but they are no less tragic for the people directly affected by them. And perhaps because of their smaller scale, they may provide more relatable examples of how social media is becoming an integral part of the human condition in the Digital Era, a means for us to express and demonstrate the better part of our humanity in addition to sharing the details of our everyday lives.
The ways in which technology has been used during these tragedies illustrate several social media “truths,” which are described and illustrated in the sections that follow:
- Social media is not just digital
- Social media is powered by people, not just technology
- All forms of media (can, should and do) work together
- Social media is real life
- High tech is high touch
- ROI is also about investment, not just return
These truths may seem self-evident to many social media sophisticates, but for most social media rookies – especially the doubters and haters – they bear repeated emphasis. They’re also good reminders for many social media advocates that new communication technologies are not an end unto themselves, and they have tremendous value beyond their commercial applications. The hallmarks of social media – user-generated content, dialogues and “multilogues” rather than monologues, collaboration and engagement – can serve many purposes besides marketing/branding, sales, customer service, and public relations.
Social Media is not Just Digital
As I discuss in Part 2 of the Social Media Primer (updated here), human beings have been using social media as long as we’ve been on the planet. Though digital social media may be a relatively recent technological development, its underlying concepts are not nearly as radical or revolutionary as some people may think.
The role of ham radio operators during the tornado-spawning storms illustrates this best. As described in this story from the ARRL (the national association for amateur radio), the storms and resulting destruction prevented the use of more modern technology, and amateur radio helped fill the gap. And if you scroll to the bottom of this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) page, you can see how much of the event reporting was contributed by amateur radio operators.
Social Media is Powered by People, not Just Technology
Technology may provide the engine, but the fuel comes from people. Referring again to Part 2 of the Social Media Primer (updated here), throughout our history we’ve used the technological tools available to us to achieve our goals and objectives, whether it was cave paintings to share our history, smoke signals to communicate danger, or the printing press to share news. Like all technology, digital social media is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.
Excellent evidence of this is the number of Facebook pages started by people in the wake of the Southeastern tornadoes. Here are some of the most popular pages, with their fans as of May 5th noted in parenthesis:
- Pray for the Tornado Victims of April 27, 2011 (142,000+)
- Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes (95,000+)
- Animals Lost & Found from the Tornadoes in Alabama on 4/27/11 (29,000+)
- In Memory of people who lost their life during the strong tornadoes (10,00+)
- People Missing or Unreachable after April 27, 2011 Tornadoes (8,000+)
These pages continue to attract fans and contributions as word about them spreads, primarily through word of mouth (both digital and otherwise).
Another powerful example is the ways in which individuals on various Facebook pages promoted the two main non-profits associated with the care of the eaglets – the Norfolk Botanical Garden (NBG, their original home) and the Wildlife Center of Virginia (WCV, their adoptive home) – in the Chase Community Giving program. As a result of this promotion, and the voting that ensued, WCV was ranked 4th and NBG 9th in the first-round of voting for the most recent giving campaign, garnering $25,000 awards for each of them. There were also several calls by individuals on various platforms for folks to write letters to US Airways asking them to make a donation to aid with the eaglets’ care. Although it’s not clear how much momentum this effort gained, or whether it had any influence, US Airways did announce on its Facebook page that Air Wisconsin (the flight operator) was making a donation for the support and care of the eagles.
All Forms of Media (can, should and do) Work Together
In some respects it’s useful to distinguish between different forms of media, but it’s also important to remember that media is a general construct that refers to “storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data” (see this Wikipedia entry for more). Sometimes the effort to distinguish social media gives the impression that it’s more distinct from traditional or broadcast media than it is. Rather than looking at forms of media as independent and mutually-exclusive ways to communicate, we should view them as complementary, integrated parts of a whole.
The activity at the bottom of this NOAA page shows how members of the public, the government, experts (i.e., trained spotters) and amateur radio operators all contributed to reporting the unfolding events of the tornadoes. No one group could have done it alone, and without the active engagement of all these parties the complete story could never be told. This article about the search for missing people further illustrates how multiple forms of communication are necessary, particularly in crisis situations. And in the storms’ wake, broadcast media has not only helped report the facts but has also supported the social media efforts of individuals by writing stories like this one about the woman who started the “Pictures and Documents” Facebook page. The page’s rapid growth to almost 100,000 fans can be attributed at least in part to the broadcast media coverage it’s received.
As tempting as it may be to see social media and “citizen journalism” as a threat to “traditional journalism,” it’s in our long-run best interests to view them as additive rather than competitive.
Social Media is Real Life
At some point we have to stop disdaining our interactions in cyberspace as inferior to our face-to-face interactions (aka “IRL” or “in real life” interactions). Yes, there are fewer signals (i.e., vocal tone and body language), which may result in an increased likelihood of miscommunication or misinterpretation, but we’re learning to adapt. And though the perceived anonymity of cyberspace may cause some people to speak and act differently, most of our digital interactions are pretty typical of the interactions we have in other spaces, both physical and otherwise. Finally, for many folks, the experiences and relationships they have in cyberspace are perfectly real and no less substantive than any other experience/relationship they have.
Anyone who visits either of the main Facebook pages devoted to the NBG eaglets (Wildlife Center of Virginia and Eagles at Norfolk Botanical Garden), or the moderated chat on the WVEC eagle cam webpage, will almost instantly recognize how real this virtual experience is. People in the NBG community refer to themselves as a “family” and a “crew,” acknowledging their collective devotion to and interest in the eagles. The moderated blog is primarily educational, and thousands of people all over the world – including countless schoolchildren – learn about eagles and related topics (e.g., their relationship with American Indians, the laws designed to protect them, the ways in which human actions threaten them) every day. Sadly, the events surrounding the mama eagle’s death and the removal of the eaglets created a set of learning opportunities most people would have preferred to do without, but the learning continued. And in the immediate aftermath of the mama’s death, the focus of the blog, as well as the related Facebook pages, turned to shared grief, loss, anger and a host of other emotions as pubic expressions of sorrow flowed along with people’s private tears. And today WCV shared this post about mail they’re receiving from children, which grounds the cyber experience in a powerfully poignant way.
Similar emotional expressions can be found on the Facebook pages cited earlier that were created in the aftermath of the Southeastern tornadoes. And in these digital communities, where individuals are not just observers, there is a lot of activity related to helping. Three of the pages, in fact, were created to provide assistance, and virtually all of the exchanges are focused on requests for and offers of help.
In all the sites, along with the sorrow and concern, there are also moments of shared joy and hope when a person is found, a beloved picture is reunited with someone who lost everything, the eaglets continue to grow healthy and strong, and positive news about papa eagle is shared. And the expressions of admiration and gratitude for people who’ve gone above and beyond to help fellow humans and animals continue almost unabated.
High Tech is High Touch
Because of the frequent emphasis on tools and technologies, many people seem to forget that social media is fundamentally a human endeavor. And in digital communities, like any other community, leaders play an important role. The eagle cams themselves are amazing, but for many watchers it’s a social experience that they share with friends and family and want to talk about with others. They also have a lot of questions they need answers to and concerns that need to be addressed when they see something they don’t understand. Can they try to find the answers on the internet? Sure. But for many that’s too impersonal.
In the communities I follow most closely, I’ve watched the community managers and other leaders do an excellent job of making these virtual experiences more personal. They maintain a delicate balance between freedom and control, steering discussions with a steady hand and a light touch. They’ve promoted civility and boundaries while allowing people freedom of expression, which has promoted a high level of functioning. The administrators of the WCV Facebook page in particular were awesome in providing lots of communication in the early days after the eaglets arrived, to help assuage people’s concerns and reassure them that the “babies” they were so attached to were doing well. Their responsiveness was particularly admirable given that their Facebook fan page tripled in less than a day, their server was brought to its knees by a flood of website visits, their email was overflowing and their phone was ringing off the hook!
These community leaders have also done a great job of sharing their own humanity and personalities with folks, which has contributed significantly to the value of their communities. Someone in the NBG community once dubbed the chat moderators the “Mod Squad” and the nickname has stuck. People feel like they know them and have developed attachments to them. In addition to providing guidance, they grieved along with everyone else when the mama eagle died. Experts like Reese Lukei, who works for the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), writes his own blog, and occasionally participates in the chat, has developed a strong following, and Ed Clark, the President of WCV, did an amazing job of connecting with members of the community almost instantly after the eaglets were transferred to his center. He and Amanda Nicholson continue to interact with the eaglets’ cyber following, with warmth, patience, knowledge, and great humor.
ROI is also about Investment, not Just Return
The ROI (return on investment) question comes up often in discussions of social media, and there’s lots of debate about how it should be measured, or whether it’s even appropriate to try to measure it. The ROI question itself isn’t unreasonable, but it makes more sense with respect to specific, short-term, focused campaigns rather than general, long-term engagement. From that perspective, the question of engagement should be driven more by an organization’s mission and values than its financial objectives.
The NBG eagles perfectly illustrate the investment value of social media. For the garden itself, the eagle family may have been their “star attraction,” but supporting it also served their mission “to enrich life by promoting the enjoyment of plants and the environment through beautiful gardens and educational programs” (from their “about us” page). The digital activity spawned by the eagle cam has certainly helped raise awareness of the garden and bring visitors, but it’s clear that NBG always put the eagles’ needs above their own and would never intentionally do anything to cause them harm.
Nuckols Tree Care, Inc. also illustrates this point. They got lots of “free publicity” when they donated their equipment and the services of several of their staff to help when the eaglets were banded on April 21st (to support research efforts), but they also didn’t hesitate to come back under much less PR-friendly circumstances less than a week later to remove the eaglets (not everyone agreed with the decision to intervene).
Even more profound is WVEC’s role. As a television station in the Norfok area, the support they provided to install and run the camera at NBG was a great local community initiative that provided great PR as well as advertising dollars. Given the distance between Norfolk and Waynesboro, it would have been perfectly understandable for that support to end when the eaglets were removed from the local nest. Instead, WVEC decided to resume the eagle cam from the same website, providing additional support to help WCV undertake the herculean task of establishing a basic set up in less than two days. Their commitment to keeping the story “on the air” was nothing short of remarkable.
I invite everyone to join any of the digital communities I’ve highlighted in this post, as well as another one I follow closely: an eagle cam in Decorah, Iowa and the corresponding Facebook page for the Raptor Resource Project. These communities, as well as others, offer living case studies of how humans connect, communicate, and collaborate in cyberspace, and highlight the benefits and challenges of managing online interactions. Following them is a great way to listen, watch, and learn.