Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Social Media takes on role of 'Church' during times of need.

Social media takes on ‘church’ role in times of need

Research has recently come to light underlining the pivotal role social media played during, and after, the Christchurch earthquakes.

Ekant Veer, a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Canterbury, has discovered that social media unexpectedly became the communal meeting place during the quakes. Veer has noted that the people affected increasingly took to social networks for help, to provide information and lend support. With the city undergoing such turbulent times - many buildings became unsafe for occupation and transport links were damaged - social media took on the role traditionally held by the community halls and churches.

The lecturer, who has revealed his findings in the lead-up to the Australasian Natural Hazards Management Conference, monitored a variety of social networks after the quakes and noted his findings. Overwhelmingly, it was found that people utilised social media for ‘immediate and timely updates’. In addition to providing practical information, such as where to find fresh water and food, social media was important in supporting those who were badly affected and created a great sense of community.

Some significant players during the quakes included Geonet and Civil Defence who tweeted regular and useful updates. The hashtag #eqnz also came into play, helping boost the informative element that became so significant. News channels, whilst maintaining importance in informing the public as a whole, could not keep up with the instant updates boasted by social media. Subsequently, the quakes have led to heavier use of the platforms and claimed many more users.

Positive reports

In a time when social media is continuously cropping up in negative news articles, this is something that reaffirms the importance it can play.

The Christchurch earthquakes cannot be viewed in isolation as social media has played a significant role in other natural disasters. The disasters in Japan, for example, saw a huge spike in social media usage, with users relaying their support under such hashtags as #prayforJapan and posting ways in which others could help or donate. Similarly, in Australia, a Facebook page was created when it was announced that the Cyclone Yasi would hit Queensland. The page provided key updates, information and a place for users to connect. Studies have further shown that social media usage ‘during natural disasters is comforting, empowering and can limit psychological damage’. Clearly, it helps fulfil a number of functions in these times of need.

Two sides

Although social media was cited as one of the catalysts behind the London riots, it was proved in the aftermath how the good side overcame the evil. Initially, social media helped gauge public opinion, showing how unpopular the riots were, and united people and communities in combatting the situation at hand. Facebook pages and Twitter accounts were created, along with the hashtag #riotcleanup, sparking people into action to help their cities. In turn, this gained many ‘likes’ and retweets, as well as receiving further exposure with inspirational images of communities cleaning up their cities. A similar movement occurred in Vancouver following the riots there in June 2011.

When the dust had finally settled, social media also took on an important role in discerning those who had been a part of the riots. The authorities were made aware of images portraying individuals involved and those who had utilised social networks to incite trouble. In addition, users were urged to come forward with any information they had concerning the rioters.

Despite not being a natural disaster, these riots similarly show the role social media can play as becoming the ‘church’. It is evident that it helps promote the community and allows people with no prior connections to work together for the greater good. Furthermore, social media promotes support for individuals affected by the events. The informative element must also not be forgotten as users can be instantly kept up to date with significant changes and information.

It is all too easy to criticise social media at present, but perhaps people should look back to these events to realise the important roles it has played. Were it not for these social networks the essential help, information and support may have been far less than what it was, and in no way as swift. 

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