Critics of social media often declare that it is an exercise in absolute narcissism. When you have an entire generation of people taking selfies and sharing pictures of their coffee it’s hard not to think the worst of people. However, in the past several days we’ve seen the best of what social media can offer. We see how a truly inter-connected world, made so much smaller thanks to technology, can band together to help victims in the wake of disasters.
The earthquake that has befallen Nepal is a story of tragedy. Countless dead, entire villages missing, the historical and social fabric of an entire society unwoven in the wake of a calamity. It will be weeks before we truly understand the extent of this disaster and even then we will only be able to comprehend it in singular stories with empathetic characters. Such is the nature of these episodes. But, as we await the final death toll, there is the smallest glimmer of hope in this wall to wall bleak news. The effort by social media networks to help countless people through donation, discounts and awareness campaigns shine a light on a dark week. The way that social media is being used to help those in Nepal is a telling sign for how we can use technology to alleviate as much suffering as possible.
Different social networks are tackling the disaster in different ways. Facebook has unveiled several initiatives that help during these trying times but, to those intimately affected by disasters, the most important is ‘Safety Check’.
Created in the wake of the Japanese tsunami in 2011 ‘Safety Check’ automatically activates if you are in the vicinity of, or are from, an area impacted by a natural disaster. The service prompts you to ‘check off’ that you are safe, and it then notifies all of your friends and family that they don’t need to worry about you. This tool, seemingly simple, goes a long way to helping countless people alleviate their very real concerns about their friends. Natural disasters often make the communication via traditional methods almost impossible. Cell service is usually the first to go, which means you are unable to call friends or family, and internet access is often flaky or simply untenable. Safety Check allows anyone with a smartphone to just click a single button and then all of their friends will receive notifications that they are ok.
But Facebook hasn’t just stopped there. They’ve also rolled out a site-wide appeal for donations. While this doesn’t sound like much, it means that 1.44 BILLION people are prompted to donate money to a Facebook matching appeal. Not only will this reap millions of dollars more in donations, from many who would not even consider giving, but the company will match the pledge.
However, Facebook isn’t the only social network that is helping those who are suffering. Airbnb, the social network that is quickly usurping hostels, has announced that they are removing fees associated with listing hosting spaces. This initiative allows anyone with a spare house, room or even a couch to list their property for someone who has been made homeless. Along with slashing fees, Airbnb has also provided links to a range of disaster relief organizations.
VOIP applications such as Skype and Google Voice have subsidized their call rates to Nepal so that friends and family throughout the world can phone anyone affected by the recent disasters. These are in addition to sending out appeals for donations and care through their various social channels.
So, what does the recent disaster show us about social media? It illuminates the impact that technology is having on our daily lives. Social networks that we use each and every day can help us connect with those who are in perilous situations. They allow us to donate, empathize and help anyone who is the victim of disasters such as this earthquake. The technology that we use to take pictures of our dinner is the same technology that lets us save lives with the mere click of a button. Now, THAT is special.