Ei-ash, it's been an Eyjafjallajökull of a volcano

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:

  • “All that smoke from the Iceland volcano is God’s way of trying to elect a new pope”.

  • “Iceland’s volcano is called Eyjafjallajökull. And pronounced your-travel-plan-is-screwed”.
  • 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.
    One was to an amazing selection of photos by the 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:

    • On the photo-sharing website Flickr, you could aggregate photos of the volcano through searching for the key words “icelandvolcano”, or entering the name of the magma machine itself (assuming you could type it correctly).

    • On a specially set-up Facebook site, stranded travellers sought and offered lifts and accommodation. One stuck soul posted there: “I’m in Denmark and had planned to go back to Brisbane, Australia, yesterday. There’s no taxi/plane/ferry/share a car combo that’s going to solve THIS problem! (anyone want to share a swim?)”

    • A special advisory site sprang up (//volcanohelp.eu), replete with lots of news and tips (though no tricks about getting airborne). It also featured Google instant advertisements for “Free Online Meetings—Ash Cloud Offer. Free, Easy Video Broadcasts & Chat. — tokbox.com/WhileTheAshLasts.”

    • However, some Google advertising lagged behind developments, for example, offering cheap flights “to enjoy the magic of Iceland”— direct from Europe.

    • Google trends showed up “Iceland in volcano” as the top topic for several days, and as amounting to almost 10% of global traffic on the search engine.

    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:

  • “This volcano will have almost no impact on the climate and no rational person believes humans can fine tune the climate. Nice strawman argument though!”

  • “Yeah, you go Ides! Pollute as much as you can. Show that bad, bad volcano! Ignorance is bliss.”
  • 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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