The Haiti earthquake has launched a tsunami of sympathy, information and aid through social media such as Facebook, Flickr, Skype, YouTube and Twitter.
The lightning worldwide response will likely reinforce what aid workers have known for years: Online media effectively get vital word out, often faster than mainstream media.
"We have big presences on Twitter, Facebook, and of course on our blog," said Tom Foley, chief executive officer of the Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of the American Red Cross, "and I know that today we've dramatically increased the number of people who check in with us through those sites."
With conventional communications either damaged or down, social media, connected via cell phone or satellite-broadband systems, took up the slack. Land-based phone lines didn't work, but the Web-based phone system Skype did, letting family, friends and news outfits reach survivors in Haiti.
In countless instances, the first word from quake-ravaged areas was a post, tweet or text message. The Lawrenceville Presbyterian church sent a group to Haiti the very day of the quake, and after hours of anxiety, the first word was a text message: "I'm ok. Can't call. I'm ok. Start the list" - the telephone tree.
Mere seconds after the quake struck at 5 p.m. Tuesday, witnesses were posting the first images on Twitpic (a photo-sharing application on Twitter), Facebook, and the photo-sharing Web site Flickr. In one YouTube video, the camerawoman pans a valley filled with rising dust; she breaks off her French narration to cry in English: "The world is coming to an end!" By midday, YouTube had more than 450 earthquake vids.
On Facebook, pages such as "Haiti Needs US and We Need Haiti" and "Haiti Earthquake" appeared within minutes of the earthquake. One page, headlined "Help Haiti Donate Now! Earthquake Disaster Relief," lists news stories, Web sites for relief agencies - and a "cheat," or technique by which users could invite all their Facebook friends, all at once, to visit the page, in effect linking hundreds of new users to a common interest. That "cheat," in turn, was sent to myriad Twitter users, who passed it along to their followers.
Roxanne Klett of Hopewell, N.J., whose family works with Christian ministries in Haiti, gets Facebook updates from her friend Edwin J. Lockett of Haiti Friendship Ministries. He lives in the hard-hit village of Petit-Goâve.
"We are still alive at this point," Lockett wrote. "We spent the night under the stars up in the hills. Didn't sleep too well. The streets are completely packed with people wandering around. It's 6:30 AM. The damage here is Petit Goave is massive. Our house is still standing for the moment but another one two houses up from us collapsed."
As with the Iranian election riots last year, the quick-hit message site Twitter has come up huge. Tweeters posted news sources (tweeter anjlal passed along "some good Twitter lists from Haiti: @cnn/haiti, @nprnews/haiti-earthquake, @nytimes/haiti-earthquake"), advice on giving blood, a State Department number for info on loved ones (888-407-4747), and updates on aftershocks.
Haitian radio and TV host Carel Pedre posted photos and info via Flickr, Twitter ("DIGICEL [a cell-phone network in Haiti] IS WORKING! CALL YOUR FAMILY NOW!") and his own Web site, offering to connect victims and their friends. Haitian resident Frederic Dupoux tweeted: "dead bodies are everywhere i havent seen one ambulance or any proffesionl med care anywhere in port-au-prince." He reported on people missing and people discovered ("Just saw tijoe zenny driving down canapevert! No he's not dead"). He posted his photos to Twitter and his Facebook page.
As of 2:30 p.m. yesterday, the top 10 list of Twitter topics included "Yele" (for Yéle Haiti, an organization founded by Wyclef Jean of The Fugees), "Red Cross," "Help Haiti," "Port au Prince" and "90999."
All this created an enormous boost in activity: Haiti Web sites saw a 1,578 percent increase in traffic yesterday, according to Zscaler, a security service for Web traffic. And Twitter's founder Evan Williams tweeted that Tuesday was "Twitter's highest usage day ever (and today [Wednesday] will be bigger)."
The "90999" insta-campaign by the International Red Cross is a multi-platform fund-raising effort, waged on TV and Web-based media. Cell-phone users were told to text the message "Haiti" to the number 90999. A $10 donation instantly would be charged to their account. Twitter users cut and pasted the appeal to millions more.
The Twitter address #HelpHaiti was swamped, as it pleaded with users to "RT like crazy" (RT means "retweet" or pass along a message) the 90999 number. Other outfits followed suit. Soon, fund-raising texts were zinging through the world to 501501 (Yéle), 25383 (Internal Rescue Committee), 85944 (Rescue Union Mission and MedCorp International), and others.
High-profile tweeters such as Ashton Kutcher (4.34 million followers), former Wonkette Ana Marie Cox (1.49 million) and Jean himself (1.3 million) tweeted and retweeted Haiti info.
Social media are now established tools for aid and relief agencies. From the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to the Iran elections, such media have proved their worth when others could not.
"This is an important tool for the new generation of philanthropists, and we pay just as much attention to those media as we do to normal channels of support," said Foley, of the American Red Cross.
Toby Smith, director of Internet communications at CARE, says, "Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are great ways for people to get the latest information on emergencies. CARE has been giving updates that have been reposted or retweeted by celebrities.. . . We've also used these channels to solicit donations. The total audience is huge."
Can social media mobilize as much money, blood, blankets and food for Haiti as older means? Too soon to tell. But there's no doubt: They're how we connect now when catastrophe hits.