Fires in Victoria and Social Media in Australia

by Lee Hopkins on February 10, 2009 · 17 comments

in blogging,ethics,micro-blogging,podcasting,tools,victorian bushfires,video

I want to have a look at how Social Media in Australia has responded to the devastation of the Victorian fires.

To start with, let me quote from my personal journal. I wrote this at a cafe this morning, just before a flood of phone calls from various folks started arriving.

I am almost numb – tears well behind my eyes and threaten to blur my vision.

The Victorian bushfires have shaken me to the core, made me rethink our own bushfire strategy.

The speed and ferocity of the fire implies that any thought of staying to fight is foolish; the sheer heat will evaporate any fuel in the fire pump and render it useless. The plastic 10,000 litre water tank at the bottom of the garden will melt and dissolve into a puddle like an ice cube on a summer tennis court.

The emotional hangover from watching ‘Seven Pounds’ last night has combined with the shock of this morning’s news – that well over one hundred have died and more are expected to be added to that list – has rendered me numb to all but my most basic human needs.

I was not alone in twittering all day about the fires. Nor was I alone in listening to news reports and updates on ABC News Radio.

The speeches given by various Federal Members of Parliament in Canberra as they put aside their normal rancorous bickering and joined forces to offer condolences and ‘whatever it takes’ support again brought forth tears.

I was not alone. Every single Minister I listened to faltered at least once in their speech as their emotions overtook the words on their papers.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Victorian Premier John Brumby - image courtesy of AAP: Andrew Brownbill

Kevin Rudd wasn’t in Parliament; he was down in Victoria seeing first hand the devastation and the responses of our incredible fire-fighters and emergency support teams. As Mark Parker (@smartselling) said,

“I’ve always though krudd was unemotional till today. he looks shattered and human”

image from @smartselling's twitter profile, commenting on the human face of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd being revealed by the tragedy in Victoria

For most of today (Monday 9th Feb 2009) the fires were regularly swapping places with the Grammys as the most talked-about subject in the Twittersphere. Considering Australia is, in population and economic terms, miniscule in comparison to Europe and the USA, it shows once again (if any further proof were needed) that Australians are usually at the forefront of any new communications technology.

Similarly, as I type this, Facebook has several bushfire groups, the most popular being Applaud the CFA heroes & empathise with the victims of the 09 Vic bushfires. Tegan Proctor started the group; it already has over 27,000 members and is growing fast.

Various logos have been suggested as replacements for individuals’ usual photos or ‘avatars’ (graphic insignia of themselves);

An 'I support the CFA' logoThe aforementioned ‘Applaud the CFA heroes’ group suggests the CFA logo:

The black ribbon logo that aims to show support for the victims of both the Victorian fires and the Queensland floods Several members of the Australian Twittersphere have chosen to ‘wear’ a black ribbon to show support for the victims of both the Victorian fires and the Queensland floods.

 

The mainstream media itself has recognised its own limitations in reporting ‘live’ on this sort of catastrophe. Late in the morning The Age in Melbourne ran a story on its website showing how social media was gearing up to spread news both good and bad, plus keep the outside world informed in a way that traditional media couldn’t match.

Social media rush as Victorian bushfires rage

“Mainstream news outlets, battling to provide comprehensive coverage of the tragedy, have incorporated accounts published on the social networking sites extensively in their reports.

“Using online social media to spread vital information and personal stories is becoming increasingly commonplace in times of crisis, but this may be the first time the social networking sites have been used extensively during an Australian disaster.”

Similarly, the ABC (an early and highly innovative adopter of new social technologies) had, by early afternoon, similarly scoured the online world for examples of Australian social media:

Social media explodes in wake of deadly bushfires

“Social media websites such as Twitter, Flickr and Facebook have become a focal point for victims of Australia’s worst bushfire, and those who want to help them out.

“"One friend safe, two dead, 10 awol," Twitter user @strictly wrote earlier today, taking personal stock of the tragedy as the nation came to grips with the scale of the devastating natural disaster.”

Both outlets reported the same heart-wrenching tweets from firefighter @cfavolunteer:

Yesterday, he wrote he had "experienced and seen things today that no one should ever see".

He added: "7th February 2009 will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. I hope people are safe, especially after what I have seen."

Screen capture of @staticnrg's tweet offering condolences to a fellow Twitterer over the loss of a friend and her husband Similarly, many Twitterers took time to offer condolences – this one from @staticnrg being replicated by many others, “@DrCris I am so sorry about the death of your friend and her husband”

Praise, too, was abundant across the Twittersphere and Facebook. Particularly singled out were ABC Local Radio 774 – the regional ABC radio station for Victoria. It has worked ceaselessly around the clock to bring the latest updates, advice, news on hotspots, places safe to return to, places still not safe, and more. Even the Federal Parliament repeatedly praised the ABC in the various Members’ speeches.

Similarly, the ‘fireys’ – both the paid and the volunteer firefighters – were lauded by the Australian Twittersphere.

Over on Facebook there were similar status updates and wall posts of praise, as well as, of course, the aforementioned Applaud the CFA heroes… group. Similarly, there were updates of frustration:

Judy Downs reflects her sadness on Facebook about how Australia is currently beset by floods, drought and bushfires

International support has not been slow in coming forward, either…

Popular expat Paull Young has been active on Facebook:
Paull Young in New York asks his colleagues to donate to the Australian Red Cross bushfire appeal

Condolences swept across the twittersphere from outside of Australia; this is just a handful I’ve grabbed:

Shel Holtz and Kris Gallagher are two amongst many who have offered their thoughts, sympathy and prayers
Kris Gallagher from Chicago and Shel Holtz from Concord, California

image
Dan York from Keene, New Hampshire

image
Chris Savage from Sheffield, UK

Donna Papacosta in Ontario and Steve Hopkins in Scottsdale, Arizona, offer prayers and shared sadness
Donna Papacosta from Ontario and Steve Hopkins from Scottsdale, Arizona

Angie Haggstrom is working with local tv and radio to organise help
Angie Haggstrom from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, asks about ways those overseas can help
Angie Haggstrom from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan

Siobhan Bulfin from NZ adds her weight to the campaign to raise funds
Siobhan Bulfin from Wellington, New Zealand went to bed and got up again in the early hours of Tuesday morning to update her friends and ‘followers’.

I could spend many more hours grabbing screenshots of tweets and Facebook comments, but I need sleep.

YouTube also saw some work: JuanMann has a donation video being spruiked by YouTube itself; there’s news stories, and more:

 

and many, many more…

Flickr

Not to be left out, Flickr rapidly became home to a swag of photos that grows by the second.

Thomas - Coombes Road, Kingslake West

image by kable

Guests at the wedding reception pitch in to get the pump started and pre-position hoses and buckets of water 
Guests at the wedding reception pitch in to get the pump started and pre-position hoses and buckets of water.

Aussie blogosphere

Nor has the blogosphere in Australia been slow to respond to the bushfires. Many leading bloggers (Laurel Papworth, Darren Rowse, Jim Stewart, Jasmin Tragas among many) are working both in front of and behind the scenes to organise their possies. Several social media events are being co-ordinated to raise money, receive clothing donations, and so on (I don’t have the links to hand, sorry (we had a power failure and I lost all of my browser tabs), but hopefully comments will be left below to help find a meetup in your local area).

One of the best posts I read about how the mainstream media was handling the bushfires came on Sunday 8th from Mark Parker, from whom I take a shedload of snippets and share in his rightful anger:

24 hours ago, many of us hoped it wouldn’t be as bad as the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983. What we know now is that the emergency is far worse and can only get worse before we see any respite.

This afternoon in Brisbane, whilst our major media networks ran standard programming, I followed the flow of news of the devastation primarily via Twitter (thanks to @cfa_updates and @774melbourne). Sadly, as the death toll escalated beyond my comprehension the gap between what was possible (i.e. Twitter) and what we’d come to expect (i.e. TV news networks) was insurmountable. It struck me as odd that as I updated my wife she couldn’t believe what I was saying as the TV either wasn’t up to date or the networks felt it wasn’t important enough to run anything more than hourly updates – it’s not like they don’t know how to use ticker updates.

What did I learn from this?

Well, social media and tools like Twitter are at work down under despite my earlier post that Australian companies are missing the boat.

But we’ve got some major work to do. We’re just so not connected.

What stood out for me?

  1. @cfa_updates – an unofficial source of Country Fire Authority data. Whoever @cfa_updates is, it kept me glued to my computer all afternoon. Great work whoever you are. I hope the CFA ultimately recognise your work as you allowed them to focus on the important stuff whilst disseminating info out to the community.
  2. @774melbourne has kept us all up to date. But has @774melbourne highlighted a weakness in Twitter? @774melbourne is the Melbourne radio station for our Government owned broadcaster ABC. ABC has a Twitter presence – @abcnews. So whilst @774melbourne was tweeting every few minutes, @abcnews was making (barely) an hourly update that in some cases wasn’t even devoted to the emergency. This begs the question. We turn to the ABC for news, yet off @abcnews we’d be hard pressed to understand the gravity of the disaster. You’d need to go look for @774melbourne to really get your finger on the pulse – this is not ideal.
  3. A number of local Google engineers created a very useful map of what was going down. Great work Google team considering it was a weekend. And nice commentary asking people to stay away from core emergency service numbers. It’s worth noting that Google simply took CFA feeds and turned this data into a useful service (as did @cfa_updates).

Note: this post was written Sunday night, BEFORE the major newspapers hit the streets on Monday morning.

For me he sums up much of the frustration about how the mainstream media seems to be concerned more with pre-scheduled content and advertising revenue than with delivering a real, credible news service, without turning it into a CNN, endlessly-repeating 15 minute cycle of the same clips and same talking heads.

It’s now 5:22am and it’s taken me all night to compile this post. But I finish it off with words from someone else – Mark said it more eloquently than I:

In 6 minutes, Sunday 8 February 2009 will be finished. Yet I’m still getting updates from @774 and @cfa_updates – still. Go to bed guys, we’re going to need you over the next few days. God help those relying on the mainstream press…

And finally, wherever you are, think of the volunteer fire fighters, emergency services, the police, the red cross, the teams flying the helicopters, the medical teams dealing with the injured, the vets dealing with wounded animals
, the poor sap reporter on the ground knowing his update is next to meaningless, those who are left to rebuild shattered lives, and those who are no longer with us.

Our thoughts and prayers are with you all.


  • http://www.servantofchaos.com/ Gavin Heaton

    “the mainstream media seems to be concerned more with pre-scheduled content and advertising revenue than with delivering a real, credible news service, without turning it into a CNN, endlessly-repeating 15 minute cycle of the same clips and same talking heads.” … excellent post, Lee.

    Gavin Heaton’s last blog post..Five in the Morning 012909

  • http://www.servantofchaos.com Gavin Heaton

    “the mainstream media seems to be concerned more with pre-scheduled content and advertising revenue than with delivering a real, credible news service, without turning it into a CNN, endlessly-repeating 15 minute cycle of the same clips and same talking heads.” … excellent post, Lee.

    Gavin Heaton’s last blog post..Five in the Morning 012909

  • http://www.divinewrite.com/blog Glenn Murray

    Hi Lee. Great post mate. You really are a good man. This post shows a lot of heart (and insight). Well done. Stay safe.

  • http://www.divinewrite.com/blog Glenn Murray

    Hi Lee. Great post mate. You really are a good man. This post shows a lot of heart (and insight). Well done. Stay safe.

  • http://youngie.prblogs.org/ Paull Young

    I echo Gavin mate, superb post.

    I think that it is really from now that we have the biggest opportunity for social media – can it play a leading role in the long-term effort to raise funds and assistance for the affected so we can rebuild their community?

    The long term cause we must embark on to help could be greatly boosted by Australia’s social media community… especially because the MSM will no doubt forget about this as soon as it stops rating.

    Paull Young’s last blog post..The One Question For Your Social Media Consultant

  • http://youngie.prblogs.org Paull Young

    I echo Gavin mate, superb post.

    I think that it is really from now that we have the biggest opportunity for social media – can it play a leading role in the long-term effort to raise funds and assistance for the affected so we can rebuild their community?

    The long term cause we must embark on to help could be greatly boosted by Australia’s social media community… especially because the MSM will no doubt forget about this as soon as it stops rating.

    Paull Young’s last blog post..The One Question For Your Social Media Consultant

  • http://professionalwebcontent.com/ Angie Haggstrom

    Hi Lee,

    I wanted to thank you personally for keeping all of us overseas up to date. If it wouldn’t have been for you and others, we would know very little. I was extremely disappointed when I discovered our national news had very little information, and only after hearing about Nissan laying off 8.5% of its workforce.

    I am still working on things from here to see what I can do. Phone calls and such. I hope you have gotten some rest. You need and deserve it.

    Thank you.

    Angie Haggstrom

    Angie Haggstrom’s last blog post..25 Of The Best Guides For Online Writing Techniques And Writing Styles

  • http://professionalwebcontent.com/ Angie Haggstrom

    Hi Lee,

    I wanted to thank you personally for keeping all of us overseas up to date. If it wouldn’t have been for you and others, we would know very little. I was extremely disappointed when I discovered our national news had very little information, and only after hearing about Nissan laying off 8.5% of its workforce.

    I am still working on things from here to see what I can do. Phone calls and such. I hope you have gotten some rest. You need and deserve it.

    Thank you.

    Angie Haggstrom

    Angie Haggstrom’s last blog post..25 Of The Best Guides For Online Writing Techniques And Writing Styles

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  • Ed Nemechek

    (letter to Editor, for publication) –STOP THE AUSTRALIAN WILDFIRES AND IMPEACH THE TOP RESPONSIBLE OFFICIALS !! –Why didn’t they call in the available Supertanker waterbomber aircraft (12,000 to 24,000 gallon water or retardant drop capacity) that would have stopped these fires cold in the beginning of the fires? –see: evergreen supertanker (on internet) or: waterbomber.org (on internet) or (-1-804-240-4065 Global Emergency Response- IL-76, Supertanker).
    These eight aircraft should have been called in weeks ago, two from California and six from the international Russian Water Bomber fleet and even NOW! –and put on contract for future use. These fires shouldn’t have to happen year after year (JBS.org (search: wildfire). -What is happening in Australia now is an example of what has been happening in America also for many years because they REFUSED the Supertankers. The responsibility for these fires rests with the top fire officials and government potentates at the top who have REFUSED to use the Supertanker final solution for over 14 years and let Australia (and America) burn. Impeachment and appropriate prosecution is certainly in order for these top officials, from the Prime Minister (or President) on down. Supertanker water bombing aircraft have been available for over 14 years and not used by top fire officials !! -Sincerely, Ed Nemechek, California.92285 -760-246-8059. ednemechek@verizon.net

  • Ed Nemechek

    (letter to Editor, for publication) –STOP THE AUSTRALIAN WILDFIRES AND IMPEACH THE TOP RESPONSIBLE OFFICIALS !! –Why didn’t they call in the available Supertanker waterbomber aircraft (12,000 to 24,000 gallon water or retardant drop capacity) that would have stopped these fires cold in the beginning of the fires? –see: evergreen supertanker (on internet) or: waterbomber.org (on internet) or (-1-804-240-4065 Global Emergency Response- IL-76, Supertanker).
    These eight aircraft should have been called in weeks ago, two from California and six from the international Russian Water Bomber fleet and even NOW! –and put on contract for future use. These fires shouldn’t have to happen year after year (JBS.org (search: wildfire). -What is happening in Australia now is an example of what has been happening in America also for many years because they REFUSED the Supertankers. The responsibility for these fires rests with the top fire officials and government potentates at the top who have REFUSED to use the Supertanker final solution for over 14 years and let Australia (and America) burn. Impeachment and appropriate prosecution is certainly in order for these top officials, from the Prime Minister (or President) on down. Supertanker water bombing aircraft have been available for over 14 years and not used by top fire officials !! -Sincerely, Ed Nemechek, California.92285 -760-246-8059. ednemechek@verizon.net

  • http://leehopkins.net/ Lee Hopkins

    Ed’s comment published as a shining example of the sort of commentary that really doesn’t help the debate.

  • http://leehopkins.net Lee Hopkins

    Ed’s comment published as a shining example of the sort of commentary that really doesn’t help the debate.

  • James

    Aussie firm seeks donations to launch predictive virtual 3d earth fire mapping mobile app http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/192919?a=746377 Check it out because if you live in fear of fires, this app may save your life

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