If a tweet falls in the forest, does anybody hear?

by Karen Zypchyn, April 2013

Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn wondered in his famous song if anybody had heard a tree falling in the forest, communicating to us the forest’s destruction. Cockburn saw trees as signals sending us warnings, but he was critical of people’s ability to listen and to act to prevent environmental disaster.

An image of a world in trouble as a result of the destruction of the forests, taken from Bruce Cockburn's video of his song If a Tree.

An image of the world in trouble as a result of the destruction of forests, taken from Bruce Cockburn’s music video for If a Tree Falls.

In our social media world of today, where Twitter has emerged as the live newswire of the 21st century, I am starting to wonder a similar thing:  if a tweet falls in the social media forest, does anybody hear? It’s an important question to ask pertaining to the ways in which Twitter is being used during disaster.

I started wondering about this question after I witnessed a flood of tweets on Twitter during the historic snowstorm of February 8-9th, 2013 along the eastern coast of the United States, which hit Massachusetts and Connecticut quite hard. It was a type of disaster, no question: there was so much snow that power outages ensued, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power, and some people even died. Eleven Americans perished.

I watched with great interest to see what citizens were saying about it on Twitter and to see what journalists and disaster organizations like the Red Cross were saying. Who is being heard? I wondered. What messages should be heard?

I started to notice what I perceived to be important tweets about survival falling on proverbial deaf ears. The Red Cross Eastern Massachusetts had been sending out signals in its tweets, warning the public of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, for example.

The Red Cross Eastern  Massachusetts posted this warning on Twitter on Feb. 10, 2013, in the aftermath of the snowstorm. There was so much snow there were power outages affecting thousands of people. According the Associated Press, in the U.S., there were 11 deaths; one 11-year-old boy in Boston had died from carbon monoxide poisoning while warming up inside a running car as his father shoveled snow outside.

The Red Cross Eastern Massachusetts posted this warning on Twitter on Feb. 10, 2013, in the aftermath of the snowstorm. There was so much snow there were power outages affecting thousands of people. According the Associated Press, in the U.S., there were 11 deaths; one 11-year-old boy in Boston had died from carbon monoxide poisoning while warming up inside a running car as his father shoveled snow outside.

Yet as I looked through feeds of popular hashtags being used by people in the tweets they posted about the storm, including #Nemo, #Boston, and #snow, I didn’t see many people paying attention to the warning posted by the Red Cross. Instead, people were busy posting to Twitter pictures of the impact of the snowstorm on their lives. They appeared too immersed in their own experience of the storm that they seemingly did not pay attention to tweets from both the Red Cross and news agencies concerning warnings.

I seek to verify this perception through my own research of the snowstorm, which was named #Nemo by the Weather channel, a hashtag that resonated with the public.  Something seemingly went wrong in terms of people getting messages from the organizations that mattered, and that’s a concern. This time, the disaster was only a snowstorm, but even this weather-related event resulted in deaths.  What if the disaster is far more devastating the next time? Shortly after the snowstorm hit Boston, the city was faced with yet another another type of disaster in April: the Boston marathon bombings.

As a society, we need to figure out how to use Twitter effectively to communicate warning signals during disasters. We don’t want tweets to fall on deaf ears in the vast social media forest that exists in the Twittersphere. They need to reach audiences in order for audiences to spread the word about how to cope with disaster.

 

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