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Derechos, Twitter and the human condition

Posted by Chris Wray on Jul 14, 2011 in essays

Georgia Power Line Trucks

Today’s post is an essay about the events of this past week that have given me pause for reflection. Many thanks to Marla (@bluemarla) for permission to publish her photo.

Last week, I learned a new word: haboob—a violent, summer sandstorm—thanks to the powerful images of Phoenix photographer Mike Olbinski. This week, I learned another meteorological term: derecho. The northern Chicago suburbs were hit hard on Monday by a violent derecho: an intense, widespread, fast-moving windstorm that produces damaging straight-line winds. Monday’s event caught my full attention. My wife and children were staying in Chicago’s northern suburbs when the storm hit.

Thankfully, my family is safe. But in the storm’s wake, my wife and kids had to endure 76 hours without electricity, detour around downed power lines and trees, and cope with long lines at the gas station, reminiscent of the ‘70s oil embargo (those of you old enough to remember :)).

As the week’s events unfolded, my emotions ran the gamut: concern, frustration, anger, and powerless—yet I didn’t feel disconnected. Despite their power loss, my family and I sporadically talked via cell phone. I began to feel empowered, while sitting in front of my Mac pulling up current weather conditions, road closures, and latest bulletins from the local municipal websites. I created a sort of in-home command center that enabled me to feed important updates to my wife.

To my surprise, Twitter became indispensable. I became glued to it, following Commonwealth Edison (@ComEd), Illinois’ largest electric utility. At this very moment, ComEd continues to feed news to customers 24/7 during this unprecedented state of emergency. A real-time tool, serving thousands in ways that a call center or website couldn’t possible keep pace—yet alone allow you to connect, if you don’t have power. Any battery-powered portable smart device serves up Twitter.

Granted, this media has limitations: specific questions I asked weren’t addressed; some answers were highly scripted and impersonal. Yet the exchanges between ComEd and Twitter followers were largely supportive and civilized. More importantly, Twitter took on a living, breathing presence. Followers, whose power was restored, would hash tag: #ComEdRestored. By searching this tag, customers—even ComEd—could form an accurate, real-time picture of towns whose power had been restored. Now that’s pretty amazing!

A retweet by ComEd (Twitter parlance: to forward a previously sent Twitter message) caught my eye late Thursday morning. It read,

A smile came to my face. The socially constructed mosaic of the week’s information was finally coming together. Twitter messages confirmed power was being restored near my family’s location. A convoy of reinforcements, captured and tweeted by photographer Marla W. (@bluemarla), was advancing in my family’s direction. I was optimistic; help appeared to be on the way. Within a couple of hours, the call came. It was my wife’s cheerful voice, “We have power!”

So what have I learned? Social media can be a powerful communication vehicle. It doesn’t require specialized knowledge or training. It is decentralized and not beholden to one authoritative voice. It’s remarkably helpful, particularly during times of crisis. It’s predicated on social interaction that’s accessible, immediate, and relevant.

But it can’t replace the voice of my kids, “We love you daddy and miss you.” Now that’s priceless.

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