BOSTON (MainStreet) -- As the East Coast endured an earthquake and hurricane, many relied on social media last week to find out what was going on and keep tabs on loved ones. It was a luxury we didn't have a decade ago when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"After Sept. 11, 2001, the way people were communicating about missing loved ones was posting paper fliers all over New York City," says Jeannette Sutton, senior research scientist for the University of Colorad at Colorado Springs' Trauma, Health and Hazards Center. "Then, a couple of years later, with the tsunami in Asia, there were significant numbers of people who were missing. Instead of putting paper fliers all over the place, people were posting pictures on Flickr. You saw, very quickly, the movement of how people were sharing information, shifting from physical, direct communication to online communications."
Facebook was ramping up and growing dramatically in the ensuing years, Sutton adds. Twitter was launched in 2006 and by 2007 there was already research into how it was being used in disasters. A variety of crises littered the social media landscape in the months that followed.
Social media played a sizable role in the response to earthquakes in Haiti, Mexico City, Chile and Japan. When a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2007, students using Facebook and other services were able to piece together a list of the victims well before it was made public.
During the Southern California wildfires that same year, residents didn't just use social media for updates; they offered on-the-ground reports that helped firefighters plan their course of action. Community-based reports and photos helped with cleanup after the BP (Stock Quote: BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Crisis after crisis, country by country, social media services such as Twitter and Facebook played an ever-evolving role. Twitter feeds including @hurricanes, @fema and @NewEarthquake offer specialized disaster-related information.
"It was just a landslide of adoption and use, not just among the public but among emergency managers as well," says Sutton, who has researched and written extensively about emergency response in the age of social media. "The public still relies on legacy media. But what we are seeing is the adoption of these new communication mechanisms -- and among those who are really high-tech users, it is where they are going for information when the power is out. When you can't turn on your TV or your computer, you get on your smartphone and follow the tweets of local people to find out what is happening. Those who rely on it are very reliant on it. It is amazing the amount of information that can flow through there if you are connected to the right people."