How did you find out that a potentially destructive tsunami was headed for Hawaii? And, once you found out, where did you turn for updates? If your answer is any of the traditional sources—TV, radio, even newspaper and government Web sites—chances are you were either getting old information or information that was gleaned from another source: online social media.
This isn’t the first time that a major breaking news story has showcased the power of micro-blogging and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Last year, when widespread protests broke out in Iran and the government there tried to clamp down on the press, Twitter posts broke through and gave the world a raw, real-time window into events as they unfolded. When the ground shook in Haiti, social media again rose to the challenge, spreading news and facilitating an unprecedented fundraising effort.
Fortunately, our recent scare turned out to be a near miss (though the people of Chile were not so lucky, and our thoughts—and donations—are with them). But in the hours between when the sirens first blared and when the warning was officially lifted, it was social media that led the way, offering a vital, inter-linked, constantly refreshed stream of information about what was going on right then.
And, I’m proud to say, MauiTime was on the front lines. After following evacuation protocols and making sure our families and pets were safe, Editor Jacob Shafer (Twitter handle @jacobshafer) and co-owner Jen Russo (@jenrusso) set up shop at MauiTime’s Wailuku office, observing the harbor from above, talking with residents, working the phones, scouring the Internet and firing off updates via Twitter, Facebook and our news blog, mauifeed.com. Meanwhile, I hopped on my bike, grabbed my Canon Rebel, DSLR, HD flip (which shoots 720p video) and my iPhone with Qik streaming capability and rode down to the water’s edge to stream live video of the expected tsunami.
Some have questioned the wisdom of that decision. I don’t deny I took a risk to get the story, but—in addition to a kayak and a nearby, elevated, concrete-fortified structure—I had a safety net: once again, Twitter to the rescue. I knew that if a major tsunami were going to hit Maui, it would hit Hilo first. And I also knew that, if Hilo were hit, my smart phone would light up with reports about the size, timing, damage, etc. At that point, I’d hop on my bike, pedal like my life depended on it and make it to high ground. Again, not to say there were no risks, but I don’t think I was reckless or stupid.
And the decision paid off. During my three hours on the shores of Paukukalo, I snapped photos and shot video, which I live-streamed via www.qik.com/tommyrusso while updating via Twitter (@tommyrusso). And those photos and videos quickly started popping up all over the place—on blogs, on the local TV news and, eventually, on national outlets like NBC Nightly News and CNN. (It’s worth noting that, while this chain of events shows the power of social media, it also reveals one of its flaws: because my content was disseminated so quickly, few of the outlets that used it cited the source.)
Once it became clear the tsunami wasn’t going to wipe out Maui’s coastal areas, I pedaled back to the office and found that my video streams had already gotten thousands of views. As the eyes of millions turned to Hawaii (and as the Web sites of our daily newspapers crashed), a little independent alternative media company was able to get the story because of tenacity, sure, but even more because of the power of social media.
The point isn’t to toot our own horn (though we’d never pass up an opportunity to do that), but rather to point out how much the media landscape has shifted. Old models have become obsolete, especially when it comes to breaking news, and new tools have stepped in to fill the void. We media types have been engaging in a big pity party for the last few years, churning out self-indulgent eulogies instead of figuring out ways to stay relevant. But that’s changing. New media companies—like the soon-to-launch Oahu-based Peer News, backed by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar—are emerging. And even some of the old guard are getting the picture: while The Maui News’ Web site was down, their reporters were still pounding the pavement, using, you guessed it, Twitter and Facebook, sharing info across companies for the greater good.
Some people dismiss social media sites as mostly frivolous and narcissistic. But that’s missing the point. These sites are just tools—what matters is what we do with them. And this week, when the sirens blared and the water threatened to rise, what we did with them definitely mattered.
To follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mauitime www.twitter.com/tommyrusso www.twitter.com/jenrusso www.twitter.com/jacobshafer
To find us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Maui-Time-Weekly/72161430758?ref=ts
To read our news, environment, food and events blogs: www.mauifeed.com www.mauiganic.com www.mauidish.com www.mauivents.com