Social media's best qualities shine during Harvey response
As the tragic events surrounding Hurricane Harvey and the devastation it's caused continues to unfold, one storyline that has emerged from the storm is how social media has proved to be a tool that's been used for good.
This isn't to say that the verbal sludge that's helped drive a wedge in the nation thanks to social media completely disappeared and all our problems have been solved. But there's a constant theme shining on social media during this disaster: acts of kindness and helpfulness abound.
While the disastrous effects and rescues related to Harvey, now categorized as a tropical storm, are eerily reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, the tools being used to help those in need now weren't around in 2005 when Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. In 2005, Facebook was still a private, school-only platform and Twitter had yet to debut.
Even though Twitter showed its usefulness in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, giving worldwide users a view from the ground, the platforms themselves and the way we've used them have evolved tremendously.
Twitter users took to the platform in recent days to blast out addresses where victims needed rescuing, including details about how many people there were and their condition, for citizens who were out rescuing others with boats, kayaks, and just about any other vehicle they could use to make it through the floodwaters.
One of the most active Twitter users was The Ringer's Shea Serrano, a Texas native.
The citizen groups, including the famous Cajun Navy and similarly named Louisiana Cajun Navy, stepped in to assist with rescues as official government first responders became overwhelmed with the sheer number of necessary rescues and the breadth of Harvey's wrath. Both used Facebook and Twitter to to relay rescue information.
On Facebook, a group called Hurricane Harvey 2017 - Together We Will Make It; TOGETHER WE WILL REBUILD has been a hub of information, addresses, and people searching for their loved ones.
And it was Twitter where the controversy over Joel Osteen's mega-church remaining closed instead of being used as a shelter first cropped up and where pressure on the pastor mounted.
While no one has said this pressure is what caused the church to eventually open its doors, it's hard to see how it didn't help bring about the decision.
Even Snapchat has shown itself to be a valuable resource as the Snap Map option has provided the world a glimpse of what's going on in Houston and the surrounding areas, showing places that TV cameras can't necessarily get to.
Beyond just social media, the evolution of technology has made a difference. Besides wider and stronger signal coverage, the ability to use apps to crowdsource information and stream live video has opened up communication.
The Texas Navy, another grassroots effort, and Cajun Navy have shared an incredible crowdsourced rescue map that allows users to submit addresses for rescue, to see where rescues are still in need, and where they've been completed.
Other apps have assisted these rescue efforts and informed locations included on the map, like the walkie-talkie Zello app which allowed residents to contact citizen rescuers via voice message. The Texas Navy has also used the location app Glympse and the popular user-populated Waze app to stay up to date on road conditions.
Understandably, federal officials have warned residents to avoid depending on social media to secure rescue given the overwhelming number of requests for assistance.
As one consultant told NPR, it's a matter of bandwidth: "It is literally trying to drink from a firehose... It's very labor intensive to watch [social media] and because of the thousand different ways people can hashtag something or keyword something, trying to sort out what's relevant and what's not and what's actionable is very, very difficult."
That's not to say local authorities aren't utilizing the tools.
On the contrary, as has been the case in a number of previous emergencies and disasters, local agencies have effectively used Twitter and other platforms for one-way communication, taking advantage of a larger number of ways to reach residents in need of information.
And some local agencies utilized neighborhood social community network Nextdoor to get the word out to residents affected by Harvey. The Harris County Sheriffs Office used their Nextdoor account to post ongoing updates as did both the Houston Office of Emergency Management and the Houston Police Department.
Again, this isn't to say the platforms are perfect or without issues. The same spreading of fake photos and false rumors have plagued social media with Harvey just as it did with Sandy. And the vitriol present on these platforms hasn't dissipated either, starting, of course, with the man in the White House.
No, the arrival of Harvey hasn't magically transformed Twitter or Reddit into safe havens for polite discourse. Yes, much of these platforms remain cesspools.
But, for a few days the good rose to the top, the positive potential of social media outpaced the bad and displayed what can happen when the full potential of these tools are realized.