The Earthquake in Haiti, Social Media, and Me: A Personal Reflection

Tracking a Crisis When You Have Skin in the Game

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Christian Borges
Christian Borges
Social media has long-cemented its role as the primary method to "connect" people -- to brands, to friends and family, to real-time breaking news and to shared experiences. I've come to depend on social media for most everything in my life. The earthquake in Haiti has magnified, intensified and crystallized this in an extremely personal way: As a first-gen-born Haitian-American whose parents were both born in Haiti, I still have many family members who live in Haiti, and though I've not been back to the country for some time, the roots and ties that bind are as deep as ever -- primarily through the use of social media.

Upon first hearing the news of the earthquake, my immediate thoughts were for the safety of my family. Though far from poor, they own and operate several businesses in and around Port-Au-Prince, the epicenter. Are they alive? Was anyone hurt? I immediately looked up my relatives on Facebook and started posting messages:

I didn't anticipate hearing back from anyone immediately, but remained hopeful. I noticed in my Facebook newsfeed that several of my friends and family had joined a Facebook Group called EARTHQUAKE HAITI; what started out as a support group of 18,000 has since morphed into mash-up of a "missing persons" bulletin-board, with news updates and well-wishes that's currently 52,000-plus strong. Powerful, moving stuff.

I thought: what else can I do? I needed to spread the word throughout my social graph in order to educate, inform, and provide incentive to people to act. I changed my Facebook profile pic for starters to the Haitian flag, with a caption that speaks to the rich history of the country. I also researched, aggregated and posted a list of credible charitable organizations for people to choose from if they wanted to donate.

I needed to know what was happening -- the not knowing was maddening. Twitter and Tweet-deck of course have played the dominant role in keeping me informed with "real-time" updates and links to deeper pieces of information.Tweets from all the major news organizations and journalists from @breakingnews, @latimes, and @CNN to @GregMitch; tweets and re-tweets from @Wyclef started to populate my Twitter feed encouraging the masses to text "yele" to 501501 and donate $5 for relief; others started to Tweet similar text initiatives as well. I also saw Tweets with links to a Flickr Haiti Earthquake group with photos that captured the devastation, as well as Twitter lists such as @NPRNews/Haiti-Earthquake and YouTube videos of Wyclef and Haitian author Edwidge Danticante on CNN Live with Anderson Cooper from the night before.

Ironically, e-mail has also played a vital role, as cities and towns across the nation and around the world have sent letters to members of their communities, such as the one my wife received from the mayor of West Orange, N.J., where we live.

Positive news of my own family had been trickling in throughout the day, the last bit of news was posted on Facebook at 3 p.m. by my cousin:

Facebook postEnlarge

Though my personal family story thankfully has a positive ending, the nightmare for hundreds and thousands of Haitians and their extended families is just beginning. Technology and social media may not provide answers as to why this catastrophe happened, but it does provide the means to gather and broadcast news, galvanize friends and communities, and emotionally connect with one another. It allows us to be active participants in a manner that's meaningful and provides hope, and Haiti needs all the hope -- and help -- it can get.

For more information on how you can help, visit the Red Cross.
Christian Borges is VP of digital communications at Deep Focus, an independent interactive agency.

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