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.
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”
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);
The aforementioned ‘Applaud the CFA heroes’ group suggests the CFA logo:
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.
“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:
“"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."
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:
International support has not been slow in coming forward, either…
Popular expat Paull Young has been active on Facebook:
Condolences swept across the twittersphere from outside of Australia; this is just a handful I’ve grabbed:
Dan York from Keene, New Hampshire
Chris Savage from Sheffield, UK
Angie Haggstrom from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan
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…
Not to be left out, Flickr rapidly became home to a swag of photos that grows by the second.
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?
- @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.
- @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.
- 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.