Tracing Disasters Through Digital Culture

By Liza Potts

From Nov. 26 through 29 of 2008, sleep was not an option. During the takeover of the Taj Mahal hotel, the atrocities at the Nariman House and numerous bombings, social media participants were desperately trying to locate the missing, catalog the dead and circulate validated information during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. Early in this disaster, CNN and other major news networks relied heavily upon participants in Twitter who were distributing content about events on the ground in Mumbai, reaching an audience of millions through their Tweets.

Social media is an interactive space where participants share data, validate content and spread information. As the Web’s passive spaces have evolved into active, social media, the prospect of extending these sites into places where bystanders, victims, family and friends can reach out to one another is not only needed but demanded by these participants.

We cannot simply rely on search engines such as Google to locate information and break news for us. Simply put, Google’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques rely on inbound links, outbound links and placement of keywords. While this can help us track down established websites, most search engines are not effective systems for locating and triangulating information in response to emerging issues or specific details regarding the volatile and unpredictable nature of disasters. Instead, many online participants turn to social software tools such as Twitter, Wikinews, Flickr, Facebook and others.

Spanning time zones, cultures and laws, social media has reached a tipping point in terms of participation, knowledge distribution and technological advancements. Whether it is a mother trying to locate her son after the London bombings of July 7, 2005, families using Craigslist to find a missing grandfather in New Orleans, or students using Facebook to share information after the Virginia Tech massacre, social media can be an important tool for people desperate to communicate. When we look across these disasters, patterns emerge that give us insights into how people use social media in general and what sorts of information they are trying to share during these events.

Once we have acquired information, how do we confirm that it is or is not accurate and factual? Validating content is a constant concern in social media, as people can accidently pass along inaccurate information or – worse still – some nefarious users can circulate inaccurate information on purpose. This is where moderators come into play. These are people who voluntarily organize social media content – whether it is guiding other Twitter users by creating hashtags, building new communities on Facebook or creating photo pools on Flickr. As one example, during the Iran election protests in the summer of 2009, overwhelming numbers of Twitter participants used this tool to overwhelm the inaccurate content by re-Tweeting accurate content and pointing out the agitators.

Research can improve the design of these systems, government communication processes and efforts made by relief organizations. The technology to do so is available today, and we are certainly culturally advanced enough to implement these improvements.

The assault on Mumbai was an epoch moment for social media use. A participant was faxed a list of victims known to be at a local Mumbai hospital, which she then distributed to volunteers via Twitter. These volunteers typed up these details into a Google Doc spreadsheet, allowing them to take the fax’s data and redistribute it back to the community as validated content. Other participants could then view this publicly available document to confirm these details, using the various columns to validate victims’ names, age and status.

Yet, unfortunately, many of these social media sites have the same problem today as they did during the Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami in 2004, where over 200,000 people were missing and presumed dead. Numerous websites were employed to try to coordinate details about the missing, in multiple languages across many disparate systems. These systems provided no sense of unity in user experience or in data sharing. Finding accurate answers was not a likely scenario for the hundreds of thousands of friends and relatives of the lost. Similarly, after the recent earthquake in Haiti, there were multiple missing persons systems collecting disparate content, walled off from each other and without much ability for participants to edit this information for accuracy.

Tracing these connections help us improve the current systems designs and plan new communication tools to better equip these participants during these difficult times. Learning from past experiences can also inform government officials and non-government organization leaders on how to best distribute emergency content during these events.

Right now, people are cobbling together whatever resources are available online in order to get by and communicate during horrific events. As participation across these systems reach tipping points in terms of participation and media awareness, people will find more methods to communicate and share information. The solutions will be in how we provide ways for them to be active participants, how well the media, government agencies and relief organizations cooperate with these participants to further distribute information about key sites of activity, and how empowered moderators feel to create their own spaces for communities to meet and exchange details.

Liza Potts, an assistant professor of writing, culture, and technology, joined Old Dominion University in 2008. She studied technologically mediated communication and systems usability at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she received her Ph.D. in communication and rhetoric (2007). Potts has been active in the software and Internet industries since 1994, working for Microsoft, NBC/Universal, Independence Blue Cross and FordDirect. Her current research interests include technologically mediated communication, participatory culture and experience design. She is associate editor of The Poster, an academic journal focused on visual rhetoric and is co-director of the CeME Lab (Investigating Mediated Experiences @ ODU). To see the CeME Twitter feed, go to

Quest Summer 2010 • Volume 13 Issue 1