Social networking during a disaster


As I sat here contemplating this blog, Christchurch experienced its most violent aftershock.

Since Saturday morning's earthquake, we've had over 150 aftershocks - some as strong as magnitude 5.5. Another website puts the aftershocks in the 300s. But it was this morning's 5.1 that I would say was the scariest. It was sharp and assured - like a house going over judder bars or a dozen heavy trucks - too heavy to be on the road - hitting your building one after another.

It struck at 7.49am, and our flat had not long said goodbye to my brother-in-law who was cycling to work. We told him to 'be careful out there'. Of course our first reaction, after hovering under a door frame together in a frantic panic, was to call him. Relief came once we finally got through to him but the phoneline got cut just as he said he'd been thrown off his bike on Moorhouse Ave and I could hear in the background someone saying to him 'are you alright, mate?'  The longest ten minutes of our life came as we tried to get through to him again, and my sister had decided she was going to drive and find him - but her car wouldn't start. This is where I should explain that my car was totaled in Saturday's quake by our next door neighbour's chimney, so I too had been relying on their car to get around.

My car after Saturday's quake...

Once we finally established contact with him, and the rest of our family, we immediately turned to Facebook and Twitter to see how everyone else fared. Some had been in the shower at the time, others threatened to leave town if it continues. But what is it about social networking now that makes us instinctively turn there when something happens? I can only answer from a personal point-of-view in regard to the quake, as I'd rather speak from my perspective than research what academics might say. For me it's the immediacy of social networking that I like because I can instantly see how everyone else is, where they are and what they were doing at the time; I want to see if anyone or anything has endured more damage; and I want to share my experience with everyone as they do with their other Facebook pals too.

Not long after the quake on Saturday morning, I was called in to cover the natural disaster for Newstalk ZB. It was definitely all hands on deck for such a big event. It was a full on weekend, but a truly humbling experience seeing all the damage around town. It turns out the damage to my car pales hugely in significance to what was out there beyond my home. Here's some pictures captured by my flatmate, Danny Knight-Baré, on Saturday:

Twitter was also a flurry of activity after the quake. I of course tweeted about what we'd just experienced, and as we were out exploring the city streets I was called by a Twitter 'follower' who works at the radio station Life FM in Auckland to do a live cross from the scene.

During that one, and others later for Newstalk, I experienced several aftershocks as I spoke live on air. Rather scary when you have to keep talking, but it just goes to show that us journos are in fact human after all and feel the same way as everyone else in a natural disaster. My tweeting about the quake also alerted media outlets in the UK, as per a tweet from a former colleague from London:

Because Twitter is an open forum, anyone can send you tweets, so getting messages from people you don't know internationally in an event like this is truly meaningful: