Navigating Sandy through Social Media

After my experience with micro-blogging over the years and particularly over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that Twitter has the power to connect strangers and strengthen the whole community in times of need.

AS A CONSUMER (@loanloan)

Fueled by my growing obsession with food, I decided to follow notable people in the food industry. These Twitter users included the food empire Food Network, network stars Justin Warner, Alton Brown, Alex Guarnaschelli and food foundations like Better Food Foundation.

Hypothetically if I had to write a story now, using information tweeted by the chefs and food-affiliated twitter handles, I’d focus on how the food industry is helping those in need after Hurricane Sandy.

A lot of times these chefs are not just passionate about food, but they are also passionate about giving others access to food. I remember once watching a special on Food Network in which chefs followed the trail of food from pre-production to production. In this way, the chefs exposed to the audience to how food is processed and who exactly receives the food. They generally seek to spread awareness on local poverty. In light of Hurricane Sandy, as a reporter, I might want to see who is in need of food. I might ask, “What foundations are in process of handing out food?” Some of the chefs  reside in New York, and I know that the state was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. I see tweets and retweets from the chefs encouraging their New York followers to help out at local shelters.

Before the storm, I remember one or two chefs tweeting tips on how to prepare food in the case of an emergency, which I thought was a really enlightening and humorous thing to tweet.

The chefs are not only tweeting on their own expenses, but also on behalf of their restaurants. Most of these chefs have interesting characters along with their food expertise, which explains why people have the desire to follow them. As business reporter Darren Rovell said, in his article “13 Golden Rules of Twitter,” tweets with humor can garner a good following.

Because these chefs are embedded in an area where food is needed, they are more knowledgeable about the places that are helping with food distribution. Their tweets and retweets would help me find people I can get in contact with. I’m not familiar with the foundations they are involved with, but since most of the chefs tweet links to the foundation sites for their followers to donate to, I can use this to lead me in the right direction. The foundations that I follow are only a few of those that exists in New York and other areas.

AS A CURATOR

[View the story “Keep calm and carry on: Fairfield University moves past Sandy” on Storify]

Given my live-tweeting experience during Hurricane Sandy, I knew before creating my Storify that I wanted to cover how Fairfield University handled the storm and its aftermath. During the actual event, I started ‘Favoriting’ certain tweets, thinking that I could use them in my Storify. To retrieve these specific tweets for my Storify, I clicked on Twitter, went to Favorites, and typed in my twitter handle. From there, I was able to easily insert the tweets into the story.

I also briefly filmed what was happening outside just as Sandy was starting up. I then used the YouTube video to show just how intense the winds were.

I also considered the location of those who tweeted during this time and narrowed my focus to Fairfield University administration, staff and students and also town of Fairfield and news outlets. I felt like key users like IRHA, FUSA, The Mirror, BCC212 were the main sources of information during this period. I used their tweets in my Storify because they had acted as the authority for technical information during the power outage on campus. In this way, I believe I succeeded in micro-blogging by using specific sources.

In addition to researching Sandy by traditional method of utilizing the web, I also consulted University students for their input on the whole experience. I included quotes from students I interviewed after the storm had passed, because as the assignment said, I wanted to cover the story from start to finish, and felt like they had a lot of things to discuss.

In this curation process, sometimes I couldn’t access a certain tweet or Facebook update, possibly due to privacy restrictions. As a curator, in, say the art world, I imagine that one person can hear gossip about an exhibition that another person wouldn’t know about. Similarly for me as a curator in social media, on my personal accounts, I have the ability to see only certain updates. For example, since Hurricane Sandy, I’ve been following the Fairfield Police Department and I receive their updates on my Facebook newsfeed. Yet, when I searched for them on Storify, nothing showed up.

I imagined the Storify article to be similar to a traditional news article, save for shorter paragraphs. Since I knew my audience would be part of the Fairfield University crowd, most of my transitional sentences summarized the idea and the following bits of social media consisted mainly of specifics. In one portion I wanted to show the damages done to Fairfield University and the town of Fairfield, so I embedded images in a sequence. If I had put text between each image, I would have disrupted the flow.

AS A CREATOR

For my immersion experience, I tweeted from The Mirror account  Hurricane Sandy updates. I started tweeting consistently when the power outages began. Luckily I made sure to charge my phone the whole day so when the powers went out, my iPhone was charged 100 percent.

Even as I sat in my Dolan kitchen, surrounded by roommates and illegally lit candles, I remained focus on the task of tweeting from The Mirror’s account. I liked that with a mobile phone, I was able to connect to others no matter my location. All the while, I felt a sense of urgency.

Rovell said,  “Don’t Trust Everything That Is Tweeted.” However, I played around with this rule as I was tweeting. Usually, I don’t trust the students that the newspaper follows because their tweets are usually incomprehensible or totally irrelevant to school news. But during the start of the outages, I looked at the Twitter feed and saw that students were saying “this place” and “that place” had lost power. I then tweeted that “______ has  lost power.” If a group of students happened to report the same thing at the exact same time, I reasoned that the information was true. In my opinion, I think it was easy to distinguish the sources I should trust from those I should not.

In the case that I wasn’t so sure about a particular source, I did a bit of research. I wanted to tweet accurately during this time, because I knew followers would want quick but also correct information. For example, if I came across information that needed an attribution, I would use words like “reportedly” or “this source reported” just so that if the information was wrong, The Mirror wouldn’t be held totally responsible for the misinformation. But I only used this strategy when I considered the information most likely to be true. I was thinking of the time when Joe Paterno, head coach of Penn State football who failed to efficiently report the sexual abuse crimes committed by football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, had passed away. His death was announced prematurely, but the information couldn’t be confirmed. Even though he did pass away the next day, those responsible for the early tweets were relieved of their jobs. I knew that I needed to attribute my sources so that I could know where I received the information in retrospect.

Let me just say that I loved how the news outlets and Fairfield University twitter accounts were working together. It was astounding to see. One outside newspaper sent direct messages to us, giving us information and asking if we needed more help. When I needed to confirm some information, I would consult people that had the information. For example, one of my roommates said that the BCC was running on generator, even as it acted as an evacuation center for Beach residents and Townhouse residents, who had lost power. I wanted to confirm this, so I sent a tweet to Fred Kuo, who is heavily involved with the BCC. He answered me directly and confirmed that the BCC was, in fact, running on generator. I felt safe then to retweet this to The Mirror’s audience.

I made sure to tweet using AP and The Mirror guidelines. At one point I had misspelled the residence McInnes as McGinnes. I deleted the original tweet and immediately posted another one less than a minute later. It helped that I had the option to delete tweets, but luckily I didn’t find it necessary to use it often. It was also a challenge to keep to the 140 character-limit on Twitter. Not only did I have to get information out on time, but I also had to keep it clear and brief. After a few rounds of tweets, I got the hang of it. According to our chapter on micro-blogging, tweeting is more about the quality of the information than the quantity of information. I believe I did provide quality information during Hurricane Sandy.

Also during the power outages, I constantly checked The Mirror’s feed, because we followed a lot of students and Fairfield University personnel, and I knew I’d get a lot of information that related to the campus and town. In this way, I believe that I did “follow the right people,” as Rovell had instructed in his article “13 Golden Rules of Twitter.” I saw someone tweeting about students being stuck in a Mahan elevator. I didn’t have a way to confirm this, so I tweeted that someone is “believed to be” stuck in the elevators. I did this because I wanted to alert anyone in Mahan, so in the case that the outage lasted a long time and elevators wouldn’t be moving for a while, people would know that someone needed help in the elevators. About an hour later, we received a response from one of the students stuck in the elevator, who, along with her friends, were able to get out safely. Crisis averted there.

I also wanted to hear from students how they were coping during this event, so at one point, I asked followers to tweet back at us. Rovell mentioned that it was alright to occasionally tweet personal tweets. Though my tweet wasn’t necessarily personal, I was still breaking the wall between a news outlet that reports plain facts and the audience whom it caters to.

I ran into some technical difficulties. IPhones tend to run out of battery fairly quickly. Although I made sure to turn off unnecessary components, by lowering the brightness and eliminating apps that I wouldn’t be using, I slowly saw my battery running out. I almost panicked. At this point, I couldn’t switch over to my laptop because my Wi-Fi was down along with the power outage. Luckily the lights went on when my battery was at maybe 10 percent.

In the case that I ran out of battery before the lights went on, I’d send a quick message to other staff members on The Mirror to start tweeting. I feel like heading into the storm I was the sole person tweeting, with occasional help from Martin, the editor-in-chief. Prior to the outage, I did send out a message to staff members with the Twitter account name and password and asked for them to assist with tweeting, but sadly I didn’t get much help. For the future, I believe The Mirror would need to be more organized in this aspect.

Overall, this immersion experience was intense but also taught me how social media can establish strong ambient awareness in times of crises and disasters.

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Dates of blog posts

November 2012
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