On the 22nd of February, 2011, the city of Christchurch, New Zealand was hit with a 7.1 magnitude earthquake at the insanely shallow depth of just 3 miles. And when the ground shook us into disaster, when buildings fell and people were trapped and died within the rubble, when our phone lines were jammed and our media was inefficient and people everywhere were desperate for information and connection, we learned the true power of social media.
“#eqnz” quickly became the go-to point for distributed, democratized peer-to-peer communication. Thousands of locals were actively tuned in to Twitter, asking each other questions and collectively providing far more accurate answers than any overwhelmed authority could hope to give.
“Where can I get water? I’m in Shirley #eqnz” “I’m two blocks away from you and have a working well, come on over #eqnz” “Can anyone check on my mother-in-law? She’s in Phillipstown #eqnz” “I went and knocked on her door. She’s safe and sound #eqnz”
Suddenly, we got it. We got what it means to be connected to each other in a many-to-many fashion, rather than just one-to-one (phone calls) or one-to-many (traditional media).
In the days after the Christchurch earthquake, my friend Sam Johnson created the Student Volunteer Army, a group of college kids armed with shovels and wheelbarrows, traversing the city and cleaning up the mess. At their peak, there were ten thousand young people contributing to the effort. Their primary organizing tool? Facebook.
Three days ago, Sam got on a plane to Kathmandu. He’s working with the Global Peace Foundation as part of the Asia Pacific Alliance for Peace and Development. Yesterday, he led a crisis leadership workshop with a group of young people. He told them, “Don’t let the NGOs or media define your disaster. It’s your disaster; it’s your country. Now is the time for you guys to step up and lead. Now is the time for you to create the country you’ll never want to leave.”
Social media will give them a platform to do this.
I recently heard someone musing: If education and healthcare and work are all accessible via a smartphone, don’t we need to make them, along with the attendant access to electricity and the Internet, available to everyone in the world? What if access to the Internet means the difference between life and death?
Last year, the father of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, said, “It’s time to recognize the Internet as a basic human right. That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring Internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of Web users regardless of where they live.”
Google and Facebook have already been praised for helping survivors and contacts connect; Facebook has an excellent Safety Check app and Google has Person Finder. Each company also has a universal connectivity initiative -- Google, Project Loon; Facebook, Internet.org -- initiatives that could some day provide access to the millions of people in rural Nepal who, right now, are lost, alone and scared, who don’t know what’s happening.
These apps and endeavors are manifestations of a wider truth: When everything falls apart, single points of contact become bottlenecks; centralized command and control systems can’t cope. What we need are platforms that enable us to provide information to each other; that activate the awesome power of the crowds; that, as Sam says, allow ordinary people to step up and lead.
In times of crisis, it becomes obvious that the Internet is about more than what you had for breakfast. The Internet becomes your lifeline -- a lifeline that, I can’t help but agree, should be available to everyone.