The good and bad of Irene’s social media hurricane

Hurricane Irene is heading toward the East Coast. New York City, Washington D.C. and many other large cities are in its path, but as a person who grew up on the Gulf Coast and who has lived through hurricanes and seen the aftermath of major storms, I have to say that I’m overwhelmed by the tweets, blogs, views from space and overall hoopla surrounding Irene online. It appears Twitter has replaced TV as a tool of information and hysteria, which is both good and bad.

The good

Already people and governments are tweeting out information as websites go down due to high traffic. I also expect folks to tweet helpful information about traffic, availability of shelters and generally respond to their fellow tweeps in need as they can. Should this storm wreak huge amounts of damage, connecting with friends and family are tweets away, and the ability to reach out and help someone is also far more personal. After Katrina, I was able to help my family as opposed to going through the Red Cross, but so were colleagues of mine who really wanted to make a connection to people affected by that tragedy. Social media can make those connections more real (although those who want to help should beware of scams and realize that personal donations are not tax-deductible).

The bad

Just as social media can amplify the good in humanity, it can also exacerbate the bad. Beyond that, people also tend to become overwhelmed by information and confused. So there may be a lot of false rumors and outdated information circulating, such as old evacuation routes, places to go for assistance and other data that’s not designed to harm or hurt, but could make filtering the information people should trust a challenge. Some might also argue that the huge buildup to Irene is problematic if the Hurricane doesn’t hit, or cause much damage, but as someone who’s seen people make the hard decision on whether or not they should evacuate, I just accept that hurricanes are hit or miss, and sometimes they miss. Tweets won’t change that.

The stuff worth remembering

Plenty of companies have listed their Hurricane preparation plans, and the folks that provide us access to our social networks and cloud services are certainly staffing up to make sure that wireless and wireline networks stay online. I’m sure local utilities are doing the same with regards to power. However, if the worst case materializes, it’s possible you might be off the grid for a while. All networks need access to power in order to work, and sometimes power goes down and stays down — at your home or at a central office or a cell tower. In that case, stop surfing Twitter and save your juice for an emergency, or just forget your phone and go meet your neighbors, who could maybe use a hand — or a gallon of potable water.

Image courtesy of NASA.