Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Haiti Quake, Titanic's Sinking and the "Fad" of Social Media

It's been an interesting week on the Social Media front. Those who doubt the power of Social Media (and there are still many who do) can't refute the power Twitter and Facebook to connect victims of the quake with their loved ones around the world or how new media allowed us to help. As of this writing, the Red Cross has raised more than $11 million in donations via text message. I also finished reading a book on the Titanic sinking that provided some insight into the basic human needs satisfied by Social Media.

Let's start with Haiti. I've never been there and the first headlines of the quake didn't strike me much more than just another tragedy in a distant place. Then I saw that one of my Navy shipmates (and former Chief of Information) Frank Thorpe, IV updated his with this:

I sent a note of support joining dozens and dozens of his family, friends and colleagues who offered prayers and concerns for Frank's son and daughter-in-law. Not only did Facebook show how deep his personal well of support was, but it also allowed us to stay in the loop without bugging the family. Think if everyone who weighed in on Facebook called instead of posted. How would Frank's son have gotten through to let his Dad know they were all right? (Frank Thrope, Jr. and his wife Jillian made it back to the U.S. Thursday)

Now, let's take the Way Back Machine to April 1912 when thousands of people waited for word about survivors from the ill-fated RMS Titanic. The book Titanic's Last Secrets vividly tells the story of the Marconi Wireless operators who were communicating with ships at sea desperately trying to get any word about who lived, who died and what had happened to the ship. It was real-time communication and it took people's breath away.

The telegraph operators listened to the noise and chatter of Morse Code hoping they could snatch something of value from the scratchy dots and dashes that filled the airwaves. In Social Media parlance, they were monitoring just as we do now, but with much clumsier tools.

Newspapers got information from the telegraph operators and posted updates on the street outside their offices. The newspapers were listening and then "Retweeting" the information they found relevant to their audience.

Social Media sites such as Twitter and Facebook succeed not because they are new and shiny, but because they fulfill simple human needs and desires. The need to connect with those we love and the desire to help those in distress.

If you think Social Media is a fad, that's fine. That thinking though, ignores human nature and human nature doesn't change. Just the technology.

Bill Salvin

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