If anyone out there thinks social networks are a transient phenomenon, those doubts should be put to rest by the results of a survey of 1,058 U.S. adults conducted July 22-23 by Infogroup on behalf of the American Red Cross about where they would go for to contact emergency responders during a disaster if they couldn't call 911. While the findings should be viewed with caution (as an online survey, it obviously skews towards the Web savvy) they provide more evidence that social networks have become an integral -- and trusted -- part of everyday life, like telephones and emails before them.
Almost half (44%) of the respondents said they would ask other people on their social networks to contact emergency responders on their behalf if they couldn't call 911 themselves; 35% said they'd post a request for help directly on a response agency's Facebook page; 28% would send a direct Twitter message to responders. A full 70% said emergency responders should monitor social media sites, and half said emergency responders are probably already doing so. One-fifth said they post eyewitness accounts during emergencies.
Social networks are great for all the reasons that made them popular -- keeping in touch with friends and family, finding old acquaintances, etc. -- but the real proof of their utility, and durability, is how willing people are to rely on them for "serious" stuff. And turning to Facebook for information in an emergency isn't as silly as it might seem at first glance, as officials at all levels of government are hurrying to establish a social media presence.
At the state level, the Maryland National Guard has been using social networks to communicate with its members and civilians, via Facebook, Twitter and Flickr accounts. According to MNG Lt. Col. Charles Kohler, over 300 people became Facebook "fans" of the MNG during Maryland's crippling ice storms last winter.
Meanwhile, according to an April report from the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, roughly half of American municipalities are using social media to communicate with their citizens. The Fels Institute based this estimate on a survey of 79 towns and cities ranging from under 70,000 inhabitants to over one million, which found that 50% of city governments are on Facebook, while 56% are on Twitter.
Finally, at the federal level, in April the Office of Management and Budget waived cumbersome paperwork requirements for government communications that enable "unstructured" responses or feedback from private citizens -- which includes official communications via social networks like Facebook -- in accord with the Open Government Directive issued by the White House on December 8, 2009, according to OMBWatch. And in February the Department of Defense embraced the possibilities of social media for communicating with DoD employees and the civilian population. Pentagon officials issued a memo outlining new rules for Internet use by employees, which directed that non-classified networks should henceforth allow access to social network sites -- with provisions, of course, for a shutdown in case social network activity threatens a security breach.