Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Two hurricanes and two networks

By Rosemary Joyce

Hurricane Sandy hit close to home. Not where I live, mind you; but where my heart is, with my family.

As the hours went by, I waited for updates from my brothers, my nephews, all in the path of the storm.

My many friends and family members living in New Jersey or New York City checked in one by one, many reporting long periods without power. One amazing woman kept us up to date on how Manhattan was handling the return to work without the NY subway, which normally handles 5 million riders a day.

The closest family news came via email, relaying a message one brother received on cell phone from another brother left without power, rationing the cell phone battery.

I gleaned the wider news from reports on Facebook and Twitter. These included the reposting of an image from the Caribbean, where Sandy, my friends reminded each other, caused immense destruction before ever touching the US: at least 69 dead in six countries, according to the UK paper the Guardian coverage last Monday. On the more local scale, one of my nephews in Brooklyn posted a photo of his survival meal: oatmeal with coconut shavings and peanut butter.

Email served as the old-fashioned medium of communication. Facebook linked me to the people I know living through the disaster.

More than one person commented on how weird it was to be able to access Facebook via cell phone while waiting for electricity to come back on in their homes.

The novelty of living with a disaster, via the reach of new media, was underscored for me by an echo, a memory of another hurricane: Katrina.

At the end of August 2005, as Katrina hit, I was watching anxiously to see what would happen to a city I had learned to love. But everything was different then. I was in Amsterdam for a scholarly conference. The first I knew about the threat and destruction in New Orleans came from the hotel television, broadcasting CNN coverage that would ultimately win a Peabody Award.

The conference went on. People knew what was happening in the Gulf Coast of the US because we saw Hurricane Katrina unfolding on the cable networks, especially CNN.

Facebook was less than two years old; it had only just become available to high schools, after meteoric growth among university students. By December 2004 Facebook counted 1 million users, and by the end of 2005, reached 5.5 million users. That may sound impressive, but today, Facebook claims 1 billion users. One billion.

And it isn't just numbers that make a difference. In September of 2005, the Facebook Photos application that eventually let my nephew share his Hurricane Sandy meal was a month away from launching.

By the end of 2005, Facebook had taken its first steps outside North America, reaching universities in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America. It wasn't available outside of university or high school networks until a year after Hurricane Katrina hit. Many of the people I touched base with this week could not have been on Facebook until that point.

Ubiquitous smart phone use was still in the future in August of 2005. A Blackberry able to web browse was only two years old.  The iPhone that I have used this week to check for updates from family descends from the original, not released in summer 2007. Earlier this year, CNet reported that about half of Facebook's users accessed the system on cell phone.

It has become almost obligatory in stories about social media-- Facebook in particular-- to reach this point and then lament the loss of personal contact. What has happened to phone calls, the human voice, the immediate back and forth?

I value all those things. But I live 3 time zones west of my family; fitting in those heart-warming phone calls tends to run into the realities of dislocation: do I call when I reach home at 7, and risk disturbing someone turning in before an early morning? and how early would I have to get up to catch my siblings before they leave for work in their morning-- my pre-dawn hours?

For me, social media-- Facebook in particular-- have opened new ways to stay connected with the everyday trivia and happenstance that is the fabric of connection. Facebook helps me keep in touch; it doesn't cut me off.

And I am not alone. In 2009, media reports about a Pew Foundation study noted that

 Internet-based activities and cell-phone ownership led to "larger and more diverse" discussion networks. And the use of social media is more likely to lead to discussion networks among people from different backgrounds, such as those of another race or a member of another political party. Facebook and blog writing were specifically cited as helping a person have a more diverse social networks.

A 2011 Pew study added that Facebook users had more friends, closer friends, and were more likely to be politically engaged, among a series of other positive qualities.

In the present situation, while I would have given a great deal to hear my brother's voice, doing so in the immediate aftermath of Sandy would have cost him and his family a critical resource: a charged phone for emergency use. Facebook reports from throughout the area helped me track on a scale finer than any of the national media what was happening where my family and friends live.

And even now, when my brother is one of the lucky ones with power restored, Facebook lets us talk across our different time zones, sharing the small kinds of comments that you simply would not make a phone call to exchange.

Two hurricanes. Two networks. With all credit to CNN and its heroic coverage of Hurricane Katrina-- I prefer the network that kept me in touch this time around.