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Coming Around Again

By Tom Watson on August 31, 20087 Comments

I’m sitting here giving CauseWired its last look before it goes off to production next week, and rereading Chapter One’s account of the online reaction to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina while watching the current evacuation of New Orleans and other Gulf communities in the path of Gustav, the massive hurricane currently battering Cuba. The memories aren’t good ones.

To me, the flow of information online in the months (and sadly, years) after Katrina was a milestone in online social activism, a time when real people organized to hold their government accountable, raise money, and try to rebuild damaged lives. Like the CauseWired movement itself, New Orleans is still a work in progress – even as the camera trucks head back to the Gulf.

What will the online response be this time, if this storm ravages the gulf communities? Three years ago, media analyst Mark Glaser put the online response to Katrina in perfect context:

As the water finally starts to recede in New Orleans, the watershed for online journalism has been laid bare. Hurricane Katrina brought forth a mature, multi-layered online response that built on the sense of community after 9/11, the amateur video of the Southeast Asian tsunami disaster and July 7 London bombings, and the on-the-scene blogging of the Iraq War.

Yes, the 2005 Katrina response online was indeed “multi-layered.” But it wasn’t instant, indeed it evolved and grew over the weeks after the flood claimed 1,800 lives and government stood still. Since then, the network is both bigger and faster – millions on Facebook, millions of blogs, the instant call and response of Twitter, and the dozens of online social enterprise platforms primed to create new causes.

Look at Beth Kanter’s most recent experiment in online activism and fundraising to get a sense of speed and tactics. Beth raised $2,657 to cover the costs of college tuition for Leng Sopharath, an orphan in Cambodia in just 90 minutes, and then went on to raise nearly $4,000. As usual, Beth shares the sausage-making along with the sausage, and she makes a bunch of good points – none more important than this one:

This is something you probably can’t duplicate if you’re just starting out because I’ve spent five years using social media to build and nurture a network and banking social capital. It’s the network, stupid!

Yeah, Beth is totally connected to the nonprofit tech world and many of her fundraising supporters want to see campaigns like this succeed. But transpose Beth’s community standing to an event the size of Katrina, and multiply her by thousands of well-connected leaders and you get the idea (there are not one, but two examples of Beth’s canny use of technology in CauseWired).

Back to 2005 – there were limits to online organizing, to helping out in the crisis, to building a real cause online that made a difference. Here’s a bit from the book about the role of mainstream media – which is so clearly an important partner in this new world of online social activism:

…the blogging of Hurricane Katrina also clearly showed the limits of online support for disaster relief. Millions of dollars was directed to the American Red Cross, which many Americans later came to believe did not perform particularly well in the storm’s aftermath. The lack of electricity in the devastated areas kept many amateur journalists from covering the storm or its immediate aftermath. Meanwhile, some of the mainstream media – derided as an article of faith by bloggers – performed heroically, particularly the local press., the large-scale website of the Times-Picayune newspaper, became the online ground zero for reports from the city and was cited for its blogging when the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes (one for public service) for its coverage of Katrina. And most of us followed the horrific story on cable television, as that old-time dinosaur of 24-hour news CNN particularly distinguished itself.

Yet, I think’s role in the Katrina story transcends the old “we report, you read” formula for big news coverage – and it was central to how Katrina played out online, among the blogging community and a world of donors who wanted to help but felt powerless. After Katrina hit, reporters in the field updated the The Times-Picayune’s blog on a continuous basis. Traffic exploded from about 800,000 page views on a normal day to more than 30 million a day in the aftermath of the disaster. As evacuees scattered north and west of the region, they eventually were able to get their local news from the ongoing blogging at Accepting the Pulitzer, editor Jim Amoss paid tribute to the blog’s contributors, “who were integral to everything we published, and made us an around-the-clock vital link to readers scattered across the nation.”

I’d love your thoughts on this. How will we do it differently this time?

UPDATE: Andy Carvin launched the Gustav Information Center today on Ning, word being spread rapidly on Twitter – they’ll be using the tag #gustav if you want to follow. Home Depot already using the tag to update on stories in the Hurricane’s path.

UPDATE II: Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute has set up a Ning site of resources for journalists. To me, one of the great things about the response to Katrina three years ago (a rare silver lining in that tragic debacle) was the new cooperation between professional journalists and the growing social web.

UPDATE III: Gustav comes ashore. Best single resource is old-school: But great stuff on Twitter, and on-the-ground reports from GustavReporter. Beth’s got a bunch of links for virtual volunteering opportunities.

UPDATE IV: Via Marnie Webb, the Gustav Tracker app for txting “safe” or “need help” messages to the network.

UPDATE V: Not as bad as feared, thankfully. Great Q&A with Andy Carvin on the Poynter site.

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  • [...] set to re-write a chapter in his book manuscript – Cause Wired – to account for the difference in social media activism between the times of Hurricane Katrina and now, [...]

  • Tom,
    I sat this afternoon thinking the same thing. Will there be 1000 sites all trying to get everyone to register and give status? This is a natural response- ” what can I do to help?” But aks yourself – is your creating Yet Another Site to try to aggregate people helpful?
    Or will you generously point to a few that really are aggregating the current information and registering people? If Google puts up a page with FEMA or Redcross, or what about’s page? What about Joe Blogger’s page – and do we ‘need’ both? One may argue that Joe Blogger can change his site faster, but does Joe have the resources to keep up with the news flow? If he does – get him some help!
    One effort created after Katrian was “Recovery 2.0″ at – however, the site doesn’t seem well maintained and nothing much has been added since post-Tsunami.
    So, we risk having a thousand candles light when we really need a few 1000KW spotlights.
    I don’t know the answer.

  • Tom Watson says:

    You know Howard, I’m thinking some kind of fast-response Techeme/Memeorandum-type site would work well as a start…

    I do think we still need Joe Blogger – thousands of them, actually. It creates a rich news/information/action tapestry we’ve never had before.

  • marnie webb says:

    I’m not sure that this is one site to lead them all v. let a million blogger bloom issue. Aggregation has become much, much easier (and open ID offers some promise, though not there yet, that people don’t have to register multiple times).

    So, I think things like the Ning site can pull together the individual efforts. I think that we have to get better at this kind of online effort — beyond aggregating the information — and moving towards ways to share unstructured day so that people can go to local sites to look for loved ones, info, etc and somehow (microformats?) that can get aggregated into one of the central repositories for response.

  • engagejoe says:

    Tom, I read your post as I was creating a Twitter mashup – with Hurricane Gustav feeds from Blog Posts (Technorati)/YouTube Videos/Flickr Photos, and Tweets —

    Your insights and reflections really helped confirm this mashup and well as all the other awesome social media activity we’re seeing to raise awareness and connect information for Hurricane Gustav.

    I also linked the account to, Thanks to your post and a tip from @neddotcom

  • nate says:

    I also don’t think the question is whether we do one or the other. There’s no reason we can’t have both. I am hoping to promote something that I think will merge the two at HeroCamp, coming up in the next few months. But, whether or not I have that ready in time, it’s been proven that aggregation has its benefits as does editorialized content. We need a solution which merges the two. As the big networks have finally figured out that content created by their consumers is valuable, things have been moving that direction. However, they are still competing against one another instead of cooperating in times of emergency. That’s a bigger hurdle than trying to decide what to do with all the information that’s coming out during those times.

  • [...] Watson has a good look back and forward glance at the online communities disaster response (via [...]

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