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Tweeting in Times of Crisis

posted: 11.15.12 by Andrea Lunsford

When Hurricane Sandy blasted ashore in New Jersey two weeks ago, I had just managed to miss the havoc by changing plans (and planes) and flying back to San Francisco not through Washington Dulles but through Houston, just hours ahead of the storm.  I had been in Philadelphia, Boston, and Raleigh, and everywhere I went people were working feverishly in preparation for what they knew would be a killer.

By the time the devastation began in earnest, I was back in a surreal and sunny northern California where it was hard to imagine what I was hearing from friends and colleagues along the east coast.  A colleague reported that two windows had just blown out of her Manhattan apartment, another that the first floor of  her home was flooded, and yet another that his car was up to the windows in water.  The natural disasters that are piling up in this age of global warming seem to be coming faster and more furiously lately. In such times, people want and need connections, want and need to know what is happening to family and friends, want and need information.

How many of us turned, in this latest disaster, to Twitter?  If you did, then you got a sense of just how powerful that medium of information sharing can be.  Tweets came by the thousands: news as it happens. Right at the moment and moment by moment we could follow the storm and, more importantly, the people experiencing it.  This contemporary form of communication seemed to eclipse ordinary TV and radio because it was so unedited and often so raw.  I felt awash in hurricane-force messages, tossed around by and with them, and grateful for it.

After the worst of the blast was over, the New York Times carried a piece on the Twitter phenomenon during Sandy, titled “How Hurricane Sandy Slapped the Sarcasm Out of Twitter,” by David Carr.  I haven’t spent enough time on Twitter to know it as well as Carr does, and I hadn’t thought about Twitter’s “personality” as sarcastic, ironic, hip (or as anything else, for that matter), so this article interested me a lot.  Carr says that,

Twitter is often a caldron of sarcasm, much of it funny, little of it useful. But as a social medium based on short-burst communication, Twitter can change during large events — users talk about “watching” the spectacle unfold across their screens. It is, after all, a real-time service, which means that you can “see” what is happening as it happens.

He goes on to detail precisely the way Twitter changed on a dime as he and others Tweeted away during the worst of the storm, arguing that this method of communication had a distinctly different feel than ordinary media, so much so that when his New Jersey home lost power about 8 p.m. he “built a fire and sat around a hand-cranked radio, but I was diverted over and over by the little campfire of Twitter posts on my smartphone.”  Twitter, he says,

not only keeps you in the data stream, but because you can contribute and re-tweet, you feel as if you are adding something even though Mother Nature clearly has the upper hand. The activity of it, the sharing aspect, the feeling that everyone is in the boat and rowing, is far different from consuming mass media.

Carr’s remarks led me to think of all the different ways our students use Twitter (and other social media); I want to talk with them about the feeling Carr describes.  It’s a cliché to say that media today are interactive, that Web 2.0 is based on participation—but it’s another thing to see it in action in a moment of national crisis.  I wonder what my students will have to say about their own experiences.

In the meantime, I am thinking about the role of different media in different circumstances.  If Twitter was a most helpful platform in this natural disaster, what medium or media might be most helpful at other times—at epideictic moments, for example, when the ceremonial nature of events calls for more studied, reflective thought—or in important national debates, in which the medium of advertising currently seems to be standing in or doing a job meant, at least ideally, for a different medium. In thinking through these issues, I’m drawn back (as I often am) to Marshall McLuhan:  indeed, all too often, the medium IS the message.

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