Coming Together Online

If you’ve been on Facebook or Twitter within the last 48 hours (which you obviously have), then you have seen plenty of chatter about Hurricane Irene. From people giving weather condition updates to sharing videos and pictures, to the usual silliness of mocking the hurricane hype and trying to make viral hits, like this, everyone wants to put in their two cents.

Of course this is a very human reaction to an important event. People have always liked to blab away about big events like this. They want to stay informed, they want to get and give support, they want to speculate and vent. Except there is a strange thing that happens now when newsworthy events take place. Before the rise of social media, comparing notes on or complaining about storms like Irene meant picking up the phone and talking to only a handful of family and friends, or talking in person to neighbors and others in your community. Today, with social media as one of the major modes of communication, happenings like the hurricane and last week’s earthquake are reimagined as social experiences via Facebook and Twitter. Whether or not people are directly involved in the important event, they like to join in and become part of the shared experience by commenting online and making it even more of a communal experience.

As is often the case with social media, this can be a good or bad thing. On the positive side, social media sites are now vital modes of communication during disasters like last year’s earthquakes in Chile and Haiti and this year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Facebook and Twitter have been integral tools for social and political activism in the Middle East, and U.K. residents used Twitter to help organize cleanups after the recent riots. In times of tragedy and disaster, social media can help people all over the world come together to help spread important information and up-to-the-minute news and give moral and financial support.

On the other hand social media can clog communication lines with useless noise, or worse, it can spread misinformation, insensitive and downright stupid commentary, and can cause undue hysteria. What do you think happened to the person with the Twitter handle @Irene this weekend? You guessed it, she was flooded with tweets like “Dear @irene can u like stop please?”

While first standing up against people’s need to broadcast their hurricane commentary with the misdirected @ symbol, Irene Tien (the owner of the @Irene handle) tweeted, “Btw, tweeting @irene doesn’t deliver any messages to the hurricane. Sorry.” However, her resistance didn’t last long. As the social media gods would have it, it turns out Tien works for the digital media firm Huge Inc., a company that helps businesses with their social media presence. Of course, her bosses did not want to let Tien pass up the chance to capitalize on this fortuitous social media opportunity. While she didn’t want to do anything herself, she did let her colleagues take over her Twitter account to post tweets as Huricane Irene with both funny comments and useful hurricane information and updates.

It is undeniable at this point: we live in the age of social media. Life events take place as much online as they do offline. So when major events take place in the world, they also happen on social media sites. For better or for worse, people are drawn to social media to become be a part of a larger conversation.

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