Seven years ago I was in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina, and I was more or less able to blog about it. Four years ago Hurricane Gustav came near New Orleans, causing a mandatory evacuation. Once again, I stayed and this time I used Twitter to gather and republish information. And now I just finished riding out Hurricane Isaac, and everyone was tweeting and using Facebook. Some people, like me, have things set up so that simply by posting to Twitter the same post appears on Facebook as well.
Things have changed a lot since Katrina, many things in many ways. But let’s focus on social media, which has developed extensively in the past seven years.
I remember coming back to New Orleans a few weeks after Katrina. There was no power, very few people, lots of armed military folks, and a strict curfew. I was in a bar by my house (one of the few that was open) and I ran into a local politician (member of the city council). People asked him what was going on; what was the exact time of the curfew? He shrugged his shoulders and said that Mayor Nagin wasn’t telling him much so he was helpless. In other words, he was more interested in blaming his political nemesis than driving around and finding out for himself.
During Isaac all kinds of citizens became de facto journalists, simply by using Facebook and Twitter. @FleurtyGirl was a clearinghouse for tidbits of information, as were hundreds of other locals. If you watch TV or listen to mainstream radio you could find out what was going on in a broad sense, but if you wanted to drill down in to a particular neighborhood then using Twitter was the best way to do it. Is the power on at Laurel and Webster? Entergy might know, but they’re not focused on giving that kind of detailed reporting. Nor does traditional broadcast media.
Mainstream broadcast media is largely unhelpful even in normal times. They make money off of the middle of the bell curve, and they need to monetize large numbers of viewers or listeners. They can’t drill down to neighborhoods and stay there. They flit in just long enough to appear to be providing hyper-local coverage.
Politicians are interesting to observe during storm crises like Hurricane Isaac. The ones who get to hold press conferences (e.g. the Governor, the Mayor, the Police Chief etc) put out carefully crafted statements, and their audience is also, of necessity perhaps, the middle of the bell curve. But one or two of the lesser political folks (the ones who represent a single House district, for example) have learned that they can drive around in their cars and tweet out useful information. Costs nothing in terms of effort or technology, but the pay off is large in terms of helpfulness and goodwill.
Politicians are likely to have access to better insider information, but in a crisis there isn’t much insider information. Mostly, there’s confusion. This time around I noticed @NeilAbramson (District 98) gathering and tweeting useful information. I am not one of his supporters, and have never voted for him. I know little about him, other than that he’s a lawyer at a large New Orleans firm. But given what I observed him doing on Twitter I’d say he’s more interesting to me than the politicos who stand at the podium for scheduled TV briefings.
I like Mitch Landrieu, our very capable mayor. I went to law school with him and we both clerked for the same federal judge after law school. I know that Mitch has a lot on his plate right now, and learning how to use social media during a crisis isn’t something he is going to focus on. But I’ll say this: Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, gets Twitter and knows how to use it to reach out to his constituents. So it’s not that the job of being the mayor of a large city precludes one from making sensible use of social media. It’s more a question of what your priorities are, and what you’re able to give attention to.
Social media is just a tool, perhaps not one that most people care about. But that disinterest seems to dissipate during a time of crisis. With each hurricane that passes through New Orleans, more people learn how to make use of social media. And more people appreciate the true value of it: no one controls social media, at least not in a way that hinders the flow of information. Maybe that will change, but I doubt it. Democracy is addictive.
Social media is useful to people who understand it because its gives them control over what they can learn, and what they can broadcast out to others who crave information. If I want up-to-the-minute information about my neighborhood then Twitter is the best tool. If I want breathless speculation and loopy commentary then there is TV and radio. Even TV journalists are now embracing Twitter and Facebook. The good ones care about their audience and will use any tool to engage with them.
Final random thought: it strikes me that, given the power of social media in uprisings in the Middle East, our knee-jerk definition of democracy needs to be re-imagined. Democracy depends on unfiltered information. Or at least information that’s not filtered “at the source.” If I want to filter my information, I can do it by being selective about what I receive. But in the world of social media the information that spews forth isn’t filtered. For me that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
(posted from my Verizon iPad with LTE, and 16% of battery life remaining)