A little more than a year ago, on Dec 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean region was devastated by a tremendous tsunami. MediaPost columnist Jason Heller lived through one of the most devastating events of his life as the first of three tsunami waves sped past him while he was 100 feet underwater scuba diving in Thailand. Jason and Paul forgo the usual format of the Click/Counter-Click column this last week of 2005 to remember those families who were affected, and to reflect on the role digital media channels play in emergencies such as this.
I learned of the cause of my awkward underwater experience some time later. Approximately four hours after the waves powered by over and then under us, another diver received a text message that I will never forget--"9.0 earthquake in Sumatra, big tidal wave coming your way! Get away from shore!" The official government emergency radio broadcasts were in Thai, and provided conflicting information that did nothing but create confusion and almost panic. The unofficial radio reports were sensationalized and misleading. The combination of our remote location and busy wireless networks prevented a boat full of Nokias, Treos, BlackBerrys, and Sony Ericksons from holding a signal long enough to communicate with the outside world. However, SMS messages could be sent and received amidst our intermittent wireless connectivity.
The reality of what happened began to sink in two days later, while I sat in a crowded Internet café sending e-mails to my friends and family to let them know that we were OK. Half of the customers wore battered clothing and had scars from being tossed around with debris in the waves. With their hotels and their belongings washed away, most everyone was online searching for new hotels where they could stay that night.. Journalists and students were posting stories, images and videos to blogs faster than CNN or BBC could ever imagine. Families were being reunited from opposite sides of the island via e-mail. The sad irony of the speed and quality of communication on our side of the global digital divide (a term I haven't heard in a while, although the situation goes much deeper than that) and the lifestyles of the majority of those living in the region affected by the destruction, is intense. The poor fishing and farming villages relied on the world as they knew it for sustenance. They couldn't learn the whereabouts or status of their family members in neighboring villages and towns for weeks. Meanwhile, most Western tourists were communicating instantly with their families in all corners of the world via text messages and e-mail.
As we continue to become more dependent on digital communication, will the networks be able to handle the increased traffic during the next emergency? I hope so. To date, the terrestrial and wireless telephone networks have not fared well in emergencies. Online communication seems to be the leader in modern-day emergencies; however, we need electricity to send e-mails and charge our wireless devices.
An interesting fact was brought to my attention about which communication vehicle was most reliable in the aftermath of both 9/11 as well as the Asian tsunami. It was the ham radio. Believe it or not, there are still over 5 million people around the world actively using these battery-powered devices (no, most of them are not truck drivers!). Two words --unlimited bandwidth. I hope these devices help us if we ever need them when our digital networks jam up in an emergency.
Since this is our last column of 2005, I hope our readers can join us in taking a moment to remember the 200,000 people who lost their lives last year at this time--and their families who survived to pick up the pieces, often with absolutely nothing left. The enormity of the tragedy makes digital marketing seem really trivial in comparison.
Have a happy holiday! Here's to a bright 2006 for digital marketing and the world in general!