A Social Media Lesson from Hurricane Irene

*This blog post does not fit the stated goal of my blog exactly but this topic has been weighing on my mind and I knew I had to write about it.

This past weekend was quite emotional for me.  This was mainly due to me keeping up with the news regarding the path of Hurricane Irene and then, as she made landfall, keeping up with the destruction she caused.

For the first time in my life, I used a social media tool, Facebook, as my main source of news related to a major event.  Yes, I watched the Weather Channel and the local news, and also viewed weather.com occasionally but my most visited site for news on Hurricane Irene was Facebook.

I grew up in eastern North Carolina so it is safe to say that I do have an attachment to that area.  While I still live in North Carolina, I now live much further west.  Far enough west that the most we saw from Irene was 20 MPH gusting winds.  But on Facebook, I keep in touch with many friends  and family members that still live in the coastal areas of North and South Carolina, and it was through their status updates that I received my most vivid accounts of what was going on.  I began to get updates from friends living on the Outer Banks of North Carolina days in advance of Irene’s anticipated landfall as they made preparations for her arrival and speculated on her strength and damage potential.   Then late Friday morning, from family members in Charleston, SC,  I saw the first updates on Facebook reporting on conditions caused by Irene as her outer bands began to brush that beautiful city.

From there I saw a progression of status updates and posted images from my Facebook contacts throughout the weekend as Irene moved north.  My friends in the Wilmington, NC area were next to report Irene’s effects.  And as Irene’s bands were battering Wilmington, my friends further north on the North Carolina coast started posting news of Irene’s approach as well.  On Saturday morning around 7:30AM, I watched the Weather Channel and learned that Hurricane Irene had made her first landfall near Cape Lookout, NC.  Around that time, I started seeing Facebook posts from friends on the Outer Banks about the weather conditions as the brunt of Irene’s force moved closer to that section of the North Carolina coast.  I saw pictures taken during the storm of high water levels, low water levels, siding being ripped off of beach houses, fishing piers being rocked by strong waves (some of them ultimately being partially washed away).  Further inland, from Greenville, NC (the town where I grew up – roughly about a 2 1/2 hour drive from the Outer Banks) I read posts from friends about strong winds and rain, about fallen trees and crushed cars and houses, about power outages.

On Sunday morning, after Irene had departed North Carolina, I began to see more and more first hand pictures of Irene’s destruction.  Pictures showing flooding in parts of the Outer Banks, the washout of Hwy 12 near Rodanthe, NC where Irene chose to cut a new inlet (a section of highway that will likely take months of repair time and millions of dollars to repair), houses damaged or lost all together, trees downed on the campus of East Carolina University in Greenville, etc.

All of this lead to me realizing on Sunday afternoon that I was feeling a lot of emotion about Hurricane Irene and the damage she left behind.  This struck me as a bit odd.  Hurricanes hit the coastal areas of the Carolinas on a regular basis.  At least once every two to three years a hurricane of Irene’s force or greater makes landfall somewhere in North or South Carolina.  I have followed the paths of many other hurricanes that ultimately did something similar to Irene’s destruction but this was the first time I had felt so emotionally attached to what was going on – to what had happened.  As I thought this over I began to realize that the reason I felt so attached was that I had followed the personal accounts of Irene from friends on Facebook.  I was not just watching the weather forecasters and the hurricane chasers on TV this time.  No, I was hearing the news directly from people I had personal relationships with.

Interestingly enough though, the most vivid accounts I saw on Facebook of Irene as she did her worst damage in the Carolinas were not actually coming from people I knew well.  Not in a traditional sense anyway (at least not anymore).  These accounts were coming from people who I knew in high school.  I have not actually seen any of them in person in more than twenty years.  But apparently in todays social media world, you really do not have to actually have a traditional “in-person”, close-up relationship with someone to feel an emotional bond with them. We read the status updates and view the photos of our Facebook friends.  We communicate with them through comments and notes.  Through all of this we develop real relationships with them even if they are virtual.  And because these relationships are real they do involve emotion.  Emotion that does come to the forefront when faced with adversity.

I love eastern North Carolina – especially Greenville, NC and also the entire chain of barrier islands called the Outer Banks.  So the emotion and concern I was feeling was also partially due to that fact.  The fact that we had just taken a family vacation at the Outer Banks one week prior to Hurricane Irene’s arrival also contributes to this scenario.  But there is something more at play here.  The fact that I was hearing first hand accounts of events related to Irene (often only minutes after their occurrence), from people I actually knew and could relate to, made the news of this hurricane’s destruction so much more personal.  I wasn’t just watching how Irene was affecting strangers.  I knew the people I was getting reports from even though in most cases I really only knew them from a combination of distant memories and their status updates on Facebook.

What I have learned here is that while our social media relationships seem virtual they are actually very real.  We get emotionally involved with our friends on Facebook or Twitter or Google +, etc.  whether we realize it or not.  Then when something big happens, like Hurricane Irene, it becomes evident that these friendships are real and not just part of cyberspace.  There is both benefit and possible peril in this.

The benefit is that friendships are good and social media helps us meet people that we would/could have never met in the days before it existed.  Social networking sites like Facebook have also made it possible for us to informally reacquaint ourselves with people from our past in a way that was never possible before.

The possible peril is in not realizing that these relationships are real and therefore not taking steps to manage them in a similar fashion to how we would manage traditional face-to-face relationships.  The average person today that uses social media likely has more total acquaintances than the average person did  even as recently as five years ago.  Even though many of those acquaintances are virtual they are still real relationships and need to be viewed as such.  While I definitely will continue using Facebook and other types of social media, after coming to this realization I understand the importance now, more than ever, of managing my time online and of monitoring and understanding my connection to my social media friends in the same way I would my more traditional non-social media relationships.

If anyone has any similar stories related to their social media friendships I would love to hear about them.  Please feel free to post a comment related to your experiences!

Steve Strother

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About Steve Strother

I am a husband/father/human being looking for ways to move past the status quo. I strive to find solutions; to find the positive; to celebrate the joyous, the just, and the inspirational. Living peacefully and compassionately in the present is my ultimate goal. I love to write! To learn more about me please visit my blog at stevesthinkingspace.wordpress.com.
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2 Responses to A Social Media Lesson from Hurricane Irene

  1. Sherry says:

    This is a powerful essay Steve — and spot on! People we have not even thought of for years are suddenly in our lives again. (In my case 40 or 50 years!) And now there is that thread of connectivity once more. I enjoy facebook, but I am not trying to amass a huge friend network. So it is a hard call sometimes to decide who to friend or not because we do get involved in a way that was never imagined a few years ago. My mantra is “Keep it simple, sweetheart.”

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