Screenshot of Facebook’s Global Disaster Relief page. Screenshot copyright and trademarked by Facebook, 2012.
Written by: Margaret Jacobi
Facebook’s pervasive role in our culture allows the website to substantially influence a generation’s way of relating to each other and the world. Though what makes the site so popular is also what propagates its success. The virtual snowball of users it represents now stands on the global bandwagon-side of exclusivity, as evidenced by its total triumph over competitors. After all, what’s the point in being connected if you’re not going to connect with nearly one seventh of the world’s population? The site’s recent announcement of over 900 million users grants it monopoly status among other social networks, which can always be dangerous.
But just as Facebook is changing the way we connect casually, it also functions as a tool for simplifying how we reach one another in times of crisis. After years of grassroots relief efforts founding individual Facebook group pages, Facebook and disaster relief agencies have spent the last year exploring new ways to improve humanitarian efforts in emergency situations.
With this in mind, Facebook launched a two-day test run of a Disaster Relief Board in Japan last February, almost a year after the devastating tsunami that nearly crippled the country. Because phone networks are usually overwhelmed in times of crisis, the message board aimed to provide a more immediate and expansive way to let loved ones know when individuals are safe.
One of the key features tested by the board was the “safe” tag button, a function that reduced panic by informing friends and family that whoever is tagged is no longer in danger. Through that function, users could also confirm the safety of others who may or may not have access to the internet. This could be especially helpful for those whose family might be far away but for now, the feature is only offered in Japan and only functions during emergencies.
Facebook also launched a central information portal called the Global Disaster Relief on Facebook page in 2010 following the tragic earthquake in Haiti earlier that year. The information page for the board explains that it was created to employ the “internet’s critical role” in connecting people during times of crisis.
“We want Disaster Relief on Facebook to serve as a collaborative resource for individuals, non-profits, governments, and industry to raise awareness for those in need around the world,” reads the page. “We’re inviting relief organizations to be part of this effort so they can further highlight their needs during times of crisis. Most importantly, we hope all of you will join us by becoming a fan of Disaster Relief on Facebook and by continuing to support relief efforts along with your friends.”
The collaboration referenced above surpasses the Global Disaster Relief Page as Facebook executives have also convened with disaster relief agencies in the past for workgroups to discuss how the site can most effectively be utilized during times of crisis. Essentially asking, “How can we help?” one such conference took place last June in Palo Alto, Ca., and included members from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the California Emergency Management Agency, and the American Red Cross. One of the topics discussed was a possible Facebook application dedicated to disaster relief.
Outside of the umbrella of actual Facebook developers, relief agencies have started to create a presence on social media and Facebook of their own. FEMA, the American Red Cross, the National Weather Service, and many states, including New York, now have their own disaster relief pages.
“Facebook is an extremely popular platform that people use to communicate with each other and with businesses and organizations nowadays,” says Gloria Huang, Senior Social Engagement Specialist for the American Red Cross.
“This means that during times of disaster, it is a way to get information about how communities are affected by the disaster. It’s also a way for communities to come together and recover after disasters.”
According to Huang, the organization employs Facebook to help users effectively get or give help in emergencies, donate or receive blood, take health and safety courses, and prepare for disasters.
“We also try to interact as much as possible with our Facebook audiences – answering their questions and helping them directly through Facebook,” says Huang.
The results of last year’s annual personal survey by the American Red Cross concluded that one in four of those surveyed online would try to use an online channel for help, nearly another fourth of a phone survey said they would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe, and a third of overall respondents would expect in doing so that help to arrive in less than an hour. This broad support of internet resources suggests how valuable Facebook might be in aiding people enduring tragedy.
Though, one of the most inspiring recent examples regarding Facebook and disaster relief was the reuniting of people with lost memorabilia following the devastating tornadoes in Alabama last year. The Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes Facebook page was created shortly after the disaster. Now with 97,895 likes, the page’s popularity skyrocketed immediately, receiving 19,000 “likes” the day following its conception. It displayed over 150 images of found items, such as childhood blankets, mortgage documents, and ultrasounds in an effort to reunite people with valued possessions they lost in the crisis.
So while Facebook remains controversial, perhaps yielding too much power over private information, its service as a vital tool to modernize disaster relief and putting people over profit can be redeeming.