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A CASE STUDY OF TWITTER DISASTER RESPONSE - PUKKELPOP (“If your country is under attack - don’t count on Twitter - just yet”)

It should have been a great party at Pukkelpop Festival, Belgium. The Foo Fighters were present, which made me regret not having bought tickets. I guess I should be happy now that I didn’t. Extreme weather slammed the festival grounds. Today there are 5 dead and counting, with 40 or more people injured in hospital.

As is the case after any calamity a debate inevitably ensues. This post is part of the conversation.

Thank you for understanding the difference between what happened at the festival (and the real life response to it), and the response on Twitter to events. My blog post discusses the response on Twitter! Criticism on Twitter aimed at the parties involved can wait.

Whenever a disaster happens, it seems that what I’ll just dub as “the audience”, falls into 3 groups, measured by their response to events:

(1) PRACTICAL PEOPLE

What can I do, where should I go, what do I have to offer?

Emotionally affected by events but (temporarily) putting aside emo asap, because nobody buys shit with feelings.

(2) DISORIENTED PEOPLE

I’m shocked, dear Lord, what is happening, why?

Expressing distress.

(3) CRITICS

How could this happen? Who is responsible? How could this have been prevented?

Focus on analysis and blame.

Unfortunately, I saw all three groups yesterday evening. This post aims to dissect the effects of the respective reactions, in the faint hope of educating some people so their habits will change next time around. Indeed, some behaviour actually is an obstacle to the help that could be provided by that great channel called Twitter.

So how do these groups (primal reactions) translate into a Twitter flow?

(1) The response: PRACTICAL PEOPLE

Impossible (due to volume) to figure out who started it, but some guardian angel created the hashtag #hasselthelpt. You see, #pp11 (Pukkelpop 2011) was the normal hashtag, but in order to provide help to victims the Dutch hashtag #hasselthelpt refers to the nearest town (“Hasselt”) and the word “help”. I happened to catch the very first user with a practical solution: @WimLuyckx asked to use #hasselthelptmooi (“Hasselt helps beautifully”) for praise tweets, in an attempt to unclutter aid relief.

Countless people offered what they could. Transport, a place to sleep, soup or a hot meal, a means of communication.

Proto types: @Deborahhasselt, @benverkuringen, @paddydonnelly (all offering specific help, using an appropriate HT, early on).

It should be noted some of these people often offered what they had never shared online before: mobile phone numbers, real name, location…

I suppose no reader will doubt that this kind of help constitutes real disaster relief.

(2) The response: DISORIENTED PEOPLE

The “in shock” response is probably the most common one. Responses by distressed people range from retweeting messages from people offering help or expressing despair to (original) messages expressing shock, disbelief, sympathy (and occasionally, criticism).

The effect of their messages is slighty negative on the whole yet should be split into both factors:

On the positive side:

We rely on these people to retweet (RT) essential information. If it weren’t for them it would have been darn difficult to:

  • disseminate the emergency telephone number, and the dedicated number “for family members”.
  • spread information on places to sleep, about people offering transportation & a bed, location of road blocks, etc.
  • and even (ironically, as they spam those HTs): spread information on what should NOT be posted under certain hash tags.

On the negative side:

These people actively clutter the timeline of hashtags with a designated function with their emo response. The trending (= most frequent) clutter posts:

  • My heart goes out to friends & family of those who didn’t survive. #hasselthelpt
  • im going to bed now sending my thoughts to guys #hasselthelpt
  • #hasselthelpt Respect!! The other side of social media.
  • We don’t have a government, we can’t play soccer, but we do know what #solidarity is. Belgium, I’m proud! #hasselthelpt #pp11
  • #hasselthelpt respect!

The above tweets were posted a zillion times - NOT offering any help at all, yet all using (thus, cluttering) the help hashtag.

(3) The response: CRITICS

It didn’t take long for Twitter users to come up with tweets that expressed criticism about the organisation, the fire department, the railways, TV and the media in general and indeed anything and everything you can be remotely critical about.

The questions roughly boil down to: How could this happen? Who is responsable? How could this have been prevented?

Now Twitter is one of these tools that fosters civil democracy and this early response criticism is often useful, but in times of need such tweets contribute to:

  • confusion and disorientation
  • useless or even harmful retweets, with the effect of cluttering up people’s timelines

No use listing examples of this, as there is a more pressing issue at hand: Because of their number of followers (read: their influence), and their high profile, well-known twitter users especially can cause damage.

Examples:

- @abeelec: 3,550 followers (Flemish public broadcaster), highly influental, moaning for hours about whether or not the festival should continue (while loads of people out there needing help were still being ignored). It must be said that eventually he got the message and started to RT useful messages.

- @lisimbo: 4,930 followers (Flemish public broadcaster) and completely useless. She just managed to ask a critical question and to PR her morning radio. Cheers lass (and by any means block me)!

If you thought being “important” was an excuse for this behavior:

- @GeertNoels  (a well-known Flemish/Belgian economist): only a few tweets, but EXLUSIVELY useful stuff. There are more such examples.

CONCLUSIONS (“Help or shut up”):

  1. At times of need, we need to think swiftly about the most appropriate hastags (e.g.#ppok for ‘I’m OK’, #XXhelps for ‘In this place, I offer/need specific help + details’).
  2. These hash tags should NEVER be used for anything else. Ignorant people should be set straight by their tweeps.
  3. Before retweeting, check the hashtags if your contribution is helping or cluttering. Retweeting the same message in large numbers may obscure that one cry for help.
  4. Do NOT engage in that for which we like Twitter the most: criticism. Just wait one single day, then double your criticism if need be. Don’t clutter help lines, don’t spread confusion.
  5. If you are a well-known twitter user with thousands of followers: shut the fuck up. Statistically speaking, that is. If you do get the message, help us out, by all means.
  6. TWITTER YOU BITCH. Halfway through, as the aid campaign was materialising, I was put in twitter jail. As in: I was tweeting too much and thereby they restricted my tweeting for a while. The same happened to @netlash. I’m sorry twitter.com, but with all respect for the technical issues in automatically distinguishing between spamming and providing help, as a programmer I  dare say that your procedure needs refinement. You should at least pick up on the fact that the messages that make up this spam are being massively retweeted. Luckily, one can create multiple Twitter accounts (and in my case fortunately I already had alternative ones. Confusing Spanish speakers, but hey). So remember: if war breaks out we’ll all be dead if those backup accounts are not in place ;)

Ending on a positive note

There ARE tweeps that get the picture. Thinking before retweeting, tweeting you information they (usually correctly) think is useful. It’s exactly at that point that a usefull network is created. E.g. among my followers, @ElsVanEeckhaut displayed the kind of behaviour that is all about efficiency.

* HAIL Radisson Hotels for an early response and offering hundreds of sleeping places, warm drinks, nearby.

* HAIL Belgian Railways (NMBS/SNCB) and Railway Police (in collaboration with police) for bringing people home asap. As was the case in Gent, where all of these parties (despite being pretty far away) were on the job.

* HAIL mobile provider @mobilevikings, offering sleeping places in their building (nearby), as well as free communication. Chris offered his phone number, transportation and sleeping places early on.

* HAIL Twitter users like @Deborahhasselt, @benverkuringen, @paddydonnelly offering all they could, to unknown people, readable by unknown people… for hours on end!

* HAIL my tweep @CharlotteLutter, taking off to find her sister, but going there with a car full of clothes, and ending up making soup for 15 people she had sleeping over (why am I not surprised?).

* HAIL some bands, and in the first place the Foo Fighters for their response. “Our hearts go out..” blah blah was to be expected, but spreading the emergency phone number on top, that’s classy! (see @foofighters).

Too tired to check for spelling mistakes. [WAS THE ORIGINAL REMARK. This version is cleaned up thanks to @JadisNoir !]

You are welcome to tweet me or post your remarks.

Remember: next time around, we need to be prepared on Twitter.

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    Pretty good breakdown...Facebook too [to find...rides...
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