Monday, May 3, 2010

The power of non-traditional messaging

Quick mini-post, not about gender at all: back to messaging and communication!

On Saturday, a main water pipe in Weston ruptured, leaving about 2 million members of Greater Boston without safe drinking water. Obama has since declared this a disaster emergency, paving way for Massachusetts to receive some federal funds to even out the cost of repairing the 10-foot pipe and testing the water quality.

The interesting part of this story for me was not the response of state or city agencies, although as far as I can tell, both were exemplary. The most unique part of this story is the way social messaging websites served in many ways as state proxies, distributing information about the water to a diverse series of social networks.

I didn't learn about the ruptured pipe from the Boston Globe (not because it didn't report it, but because I don't generally read the Globe or any other physical newspaper, for that matter). I didn't learn about it from the evening news or from the radio; I heard about it via text message from Boston University's Send Word Now alert system, developed after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2008.

Then, when I got home, I learned that I could boil my water to purify it for drinking, that it was safe to use for washing my hands (but not brushing my teeth!) and that it would be a few more days before we had reliable drinking water from a variety of friends on Facebook and Twitter.

I'm not going to wax too poetic about the social virtues of Twitter and Facebook; there are many other articles written about that. What I found interesting about this particular phenomenon was how quickly my friends (many of whom have worked for public agencies in the past, granted) took up the information they received from the Department of Public Health or Public Works, and spread it to their own social networks. It would seem to be the case that, when/if the public welfare is clear enough, most people are willing to cooperate with government to help educate each other.

It makes me wonder about things like Hurricane Katrina - how much different would the response have been, both of citizens in New Orleans, and the response effort, if Twitter and Facebook had been as big then as they are now. Would more citizens have been able to evacuate? Would more family members and friends have known ahead of time what type of hurricane was coming?

Once New Orleans lost power those networks would have been useless, of course, but would the state of Louisianna's message about evacuating have been carried further by individual social networks if we had the kind of technology in 2005 that we have in 2010? Would more people have been able to pool resources to leave, if they didn't have enough on their own?

I think the Boston water pipe aquapocalypse shows, in a small way, that government doesn't have to do all the necessary messaging itself: people will spread information, and reliably, too, if they have the mechanisms to do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment