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22 Apr 2010 06:00
When 28 000 flights a day to and from Europe are cancelled because of a faraway island’s volcano dust, the people directly affected turn to social media big time.
As one of the many people stranded by the ash cloud, and unable to get home for five days, I also checked out the internet buzz.
Not much punch by the online media, but Twitter was humming with posts, including humour. Amongst the searchable keywords, known as “hashtags” in reference the # before a chosen term, was “#ashtag”.
Following that keyword online, you could summon a chuckle at quips being tweeted and re-tweeted, like these:
One website, the US-based National Public Radio, helped out on the name of the culprit, explaining that you simply say: “AY-yah-fyah-lah-YOH-kuul.”
They further included audio clips online, just to show that it doesn’t always have to sound like a swearword.
Twitter was a torrent of short messages whose authors inserted shortened links to a range of useful websites. Boston Globe newspaper.
Another was to a radar image of Eyjafjallajökull’s three craters, sourced to the Icelandic Coast Guard. It resembled nothing as much as the face of an angry skull.
Here’s what else you could find in social space online:
Amongst the most fascinating online offerings were maps:
An interactive New York Times product (one of the few innovative media contributions) showed the locations of Europe’s airports, letting you mouse over each one to see if it was open or shut.
At www.flightradar24.com, there were closer to real-time visual updates of where planes were aloft—and where they weren’t. An image at another site showed an incredible contrast between planes in the air over the United States compared to Europe.
The ash cloud itself drew a lot of attention. One graphic displayed the changing shape and size of the cloud, allowing you to see its growth and spread by clicking between different times.
The Norwegian Meteorological Office put out a time-lapse animation showing the path of the cloud, which someone then converted and loaded onto YouTube.
There was also an infographic that showed visually that the volcano’s outburst contributed less than 0,05% of the total carbon dioxide normally generated by the airlines.
If you wanted to find out how online users felt, you could do a “sentiment analysis” of tweets tagged #ashtag, showing these up at one point as 63% negative (rather than neutral or positive). At another site, almost 90% of online postings were deemed negative.
There was also discussion online, revealing that it wasn’t just the volcano spouting primordial lava. While no one claimed the end of the world was nigh, many expressed long-standing cultural themes about the insignificance of man in the face of nature.
For instance, on a New York website, someone called “Ides of March” wrote: “For those who think humans can fine tune the climate to their liking by using a certain kind of light bulb or painting roof tops white, a reminder that nature is in charge.”
This elicited the following sharp put-downs:
A number of bad jokes were made about finding virgins to feed Eyjafjallajökull.
But there was one conspicuous gap in the vibrant online landscape. Most airlines and airports had just cursory information on their sites. It was hard to find case of them using social media like Twitter for real-time alerts, or offering online platform for real interaction with the public.
Like the mainstream media, in times of chaos, these institutions should be leading, not lagging, their stakeholders.
One tweet during the crisis read: “Eruption strands Iceland volcano expert— in Paris”. It could just as well have read: “Ash advisory: Poor visibility is affecting professional communicators. Please rely on your social networks.”
* This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, www.fesmedia.org. The views expressed in it are those of the author.
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