Social media and the Boston Marathon bombings

My girlfriend and I have personal connections to Boston, so we obviously followed the developments of April 15 quite closely from afar. Here are my impressions, particularly concerning the role of social media.

As soon as we heard about the explosions, we switched to CNN to see what is going on and for the rest of the evening (it was already past 10 pm here in Berlin) we listened to the tv with one ear while monitoring the various social media channels.

How are my family and friends?

The first thing we did was to try to call the people who we thought might have gone to see the marathon. However, we found that we couldn’t get through as too many people tried to make calls.

Verizon quickly put a message asking everyone to use text and email instead of their mobile phone.

(If you can’t see the embedded tweets on this page, try refreshing the page.)

Facebook best for “safe and well” messages

In the end we found that Facebook was one of the most efficient ways to see whether people were ok. Many people posted “I’m ok” as quickly as they could, which in some cases took quite a while since the runners didn’t have their mobile phones with them.

Nevertheless, to me it seemed like Facebook was far more efficient at communicating the well-being of people to their friends, then dedicated services like the Google People Finder or the Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” service.

The problem with these services is that people need to know about them and think about posting to them, for them to be useful. What’s more: their friends and relatives also need to know about these services, else the information won’t reach them. When you think about it, this is a lot of hassle and particularly after a traumatic event it is unlikely that many people will try to use a service they are not familiar with. Facebook on the other hand is a service that people are intimately familiar with which makes it far more useful, at least if the goal is to share information with people who know and care about you.

The lesson learned is (once again): use the tools that people are already familiar with, rather than try to make them use your tools. Besides, the Red Cross service was down for a considerable amount of time. 

Situational awareness: Geofeedia and Flipboard

To find out more about what was going on I quickly went to Geofeedia who had already set up a feed showing all geotagged social media updates from close to where the explosions took place. It was quite interesting watching this in parallel with CNN because the social media feed was consistently about 15 minutes ahead of what CNN was reporting and the information was not more (or less) confused then what the journalists were saying on TV.

All things considered I’d even say that the flow of information on Twitter was more to the point and more focused on facts, than what I heard on CNN where pundits filled airtime with wild speculations.

A number of organizations also used Twitter to dispel rumours.

Boston Marathon Flipboard

Flipboard curating content about the Boston Marathon explosions.

After a while I also noticed that Flipboard had created a special section on the Boston marathon explosions. In my opinion this was the best curated social media resource I found. I’ll clearly have to change how I think about Flipboard and also keep them on my radar when it comes to breaking news.

The police are watching social media

I also found it interesting to see that the Boston Police Department (BPD) asked people to share their videos and photos with the police to help them with their investigation.

On a critical note, I found it was a bit weird that most communication came from the Twitter account of BPD spokesperson which was then retweeted by the official BPD account and not directly from the police. Very strange.

“The Atlantic” also writes about how the BPD uses social media to collect information in an article called: “When you attack a crowd of people, you also get a crowd of witnesses”.

Helping people help each other

Google Spreadsheet

This Google spreadsheet filled quickly with offers to host runners for the night.

For me, one of the most relevant uses of social media was that it facilitated assistance by the local population for affected people.

Within a very short time, a Google Spreadsheet had been created where people could offer runners a place to stay, since many of them were not able to get to their hotels. In less than two hours, 3,000 people had volunteered to host someone for the night.

These were my impressions. Do you have anything you would like to share? Please leave a comment below.

  • Alex Rose

    A concern to talk through (lower priority but relevant) is how people that want to offer a bedroom or other support can do that without their email and phone number being publicly shared on a google doc. Would fewer people offered if they knew that would happen? How can someone remove their offer once someone takes them up on it?

    Alex Rose
    @u62

    • That's a very good point. That would make a me a little uncomfortable as well. I suppose since it doesn't include the actual addresses, people don't see it as a major problem. And I'd think that Google removes the spreadsheet after a while – though by that time it might of course already have been copied.

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  • Dave

    Re: Police Retweets of police spokesperson –

    I’ve seen this common practice with all the police & fire accounts I follow. The spokesperson or Public Info. Officer (PIO) does their thing, then as added coverage a related account RTs. I’ve seen mayors & county officials then follow suit.

    • Thanks, Dave. I wasn't aware that this was common practice in the US. What do you think about it? As mentioned, I find it weird. Particularly, since retweets are shown in the newsfeeds with the Twitter profile image of the original poster. That means that instead of seeing the logo of the police, I just see a picture ofa person whom I don't know. To me that makes it initially less trustworthy, unless I go to the actual Twitter profile of the person and find out more about him/her.

  • Dave

    The official spokesperson using their own photo IS weird indeed! That smacks of pure ego.
    In fact, I have never seen that.

    Of the PIO’s I follow, they use images of their department’s official badge or the badge with a PIO label. Or, the PIO is the only Twitter voice of the entire department so uses badge profile image.

    In a few departments, using one’s own face would not make since as it could be a diff person depending on the shift. They speak with one voice, one profile image, not ego.

    As they’re “behind the badge” most of the time in my region, they even announce that you can meet them at public events & festivals. “Come meet the face behind SeattlePD Tweets!”

  • Dave

    The press know who they are of course. I find it weird to see a Fire PIO on TV wearing the helmet & jacket gear when he’s not lifted a finger to knock down the fire or assist a rescue. It must be protocol.
    Although, I’ve shot photos on scene before & he’s wearing the gear from the torso up, but wearing jeans or khakis. Silly.

  • Kim

    I agree with your assessment that Facebook was the easiest way to see if my friends were ok. Wasn't aware of Flipboard. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!