Like many natural and man-made disasters before it, Hurricane Sandy has shown once again the power of social media to keep people informed, to coordinate rescue efforts and ultimately save lives.
There are countless stories already about how Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have helped people in need, reassured their relatives that they were safe, engaged neighbors and perfect strangers in mutual help. Some signs started with Hurricane Katrina in the US five years ago, then they became stronger with the bushfires in Victoria Australia three years ago, and even more so with floods in Queensland almost two years ago.
The scale of Sandy and the greater penetration of social media has made the social networking aspect of this major event almost predominant.
However, for how great and deep the social media impact can be, this is yet another proof that social media is nothing else than a tool that many people as well as governments decide to rely upon when something out of the ordinary happens, and normal processes (such as 911 calls and public safety intervention) do not suffice to deal with the scale and severity of the event.
As I wrote a while ago, in other places where the role of social media in managing the emergency was celebrated and even led to awards and recognition, when the water levels dropped and life returned to normal, authorities were left with unanswered questions about how to incorporate all this exciting and important stuff into their strategies and their normal course of business.
The simple answer is that they can’t and they shouldn’t. Social media can serve an important purpose when something extraordinary happens. When we all stop chatting about sport results, or favorite actors, or how to bake, and feel compelled to collect and relay information that can help other people, then it is time for authorities to join the chatter, search for patterns, use this additional and powerful channel.
But when things are back to normal, and we go back to chatting about sports and cakes, making social media an institutional tool for public safety is a tougher call.
Of course social media is an important channel for mass notification, and is an important tool for listening to what people are saying and to uncover patterns. But when it comes to how authorities can really make a difference, it is up to how each commander, officer or firefighter to decide whether and how to use these tools to help people and save lives.
Tactics, more than strategies, make the difference.