My personal blog and Twitter feed have been largely abandoned since Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast. It is not that I haven’t been writing and posting on social media. For a while, instead of writing about communicating, I was mostly communicating. Hundreds of Rio Texas churches and communities were in the path of the storm, and many were overwhelmed with the wind, rain, and flooding.
I spent most of the last days of August parked in front of multiple screens with my earbuds in to take calls. While the real heroes were out there saving lives and protecting property, I was just trying to keep people informed.
In reflecting back on the impact and response, I am fascinated by the role Twitter played. For many people, social media is an enigma, an optional pastime, or a way to keep up with friends. However, over the last couple of years, it has become an essential tool when communities face disaster.
One could write a whole book about the use and impact of social media in crisis and disaster. Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, YouTube, FireChat, and others provide new and essential communications links. During crisis events, normal communications channels are often down. In addition, traditional channels such as phones, radio, and television just don’t have the same flexibility as these new platforms.
Since I am not writing a book, I just want to focus on how Twitter, from my perspective, played a role during Hurricane Harvey as it swept across the Gulf Coast.
As I spent all that time leading up to, during, and after Harvey’s impact in front of my monitors, Twitter was an essential source of information. I use an app called Tweetdeck to follow things on Twitter. It allows me to create columns of Twitter feeds. The columns can be feeds from lists of Twitter accounts, the feeds of individual accounts, keyword searches, or a number of other methods or curating content.
In my first column, I had a feed from a list I created called “Harvey.”
This list was made up of Corpus Christi news outlets, local governments, plus national weather and emergency services. The list grew during the storm as I found other accounts providing information.
My second column was “Rio Texas Churches.”
This was an already existing list of all the United Methodist Churches in Rio Texas that actively tweet. It ended up being a great source of early information from the field.
My third column was “Rio Texas Tweeters.”
This is an ever growing list I created of all the pastors, lay people, conference staff and other members of the Rio Texas Conference that tweet on a regular basis. This kept me informed as pastors, church members, and others tweeted about what was going on in their area.
Following those, I also had columns that listed the tweets I had posted, all tweets posted under the #Harvey2017 hashtag, and notifications for the @RioTxAC account – so I could keep track of mentions, retweets, and messages.
So, What Did I Do with All This Stuff?
Some of the information coming across my Twitter feeds was retweeted. This enabled anyone following our Twitter feed to stay up to date. However, I realize that a low percentage of Rio Texas Methodists follow us on Twitter. So, a lot of that information got compiled into the “Harvey” page on our website.
Included on that page was a feed of all of our tweets for those who wanted to follow but weren’t regular Twitter users. The information from Twitter also got fed, along with information from other sources into our Harvey Blog and into other stories that appeared on the website and in our Unidos eNewsletter. The information I compiled was also useful during conference calls with leadership from our Disaster Response teams. This was especially important in the hours and days right after the storm when information was hard to come by.
Why Twitter is So Powerful During a Crisis.
Twitter is a strange and wonderous thing. As a platform, it is a very basic tool. It is the way people use it that makes it powerful. Here is what makes it so useful during times of crisis.
1. It is, by design, short form.
With only 140 characters to work with, users are limited to what they can post. That makes it better for getting information fast. There is no need to compose and edit a complete “story.” That makes it much easier to type in the latest and hit post.
2. It is designed for smart devices.
Twitter works well on a smartphone. During a crisis, the people we need to hear from the most are rarely in front of a computer. It also doesn’t require a lot of data which helps those who are only working off a cellular connection.
3. It works via text message. During a storm, disaster, or other crisis, the most reliable way to transmit data is a text message. When there is too much traffic, or some towers are out of commission, data and calls often become unreliable. If there is any service at all, text messages are the most likely to get through. Most systems are designed just to keep trying until the tiny packet of data can get through.
4. Twitter makes it exceptionally easy to specify what information you want to see. As I describe above, using Tweetdeck and lists, I was able to customize what I wanted to see from among the 8000 tweets per second on the entire Twitter network.
So, Twitter can be powerful during a storm. I wonder what other ways churches can use Twitter to stay connected.