|Photo: Candlelight vigil for earthquake victims hosted by the Iowa Nepalese Association in Cedar Rapids, IA. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)|
It was early Saturday, April 25, 2015 around 2:30AM. My phone buzzed with a series of messages on Viber from my parents and friends. There’s been an earthquake in Kathmandu, read the first one. It’s a big one, 7.8 Richter scale said the following message. Finally and thankfully, messages confirmed that my parents and friends were safe. However, what followed for the next few days was need for more information. Since mainstream media repeated the same story, I found that social media, especially Twitter, filled the void.
Twitter's Information Surge
My first source of substantial information was Twitter because, more than any other source, this social media site was able to spread awareness of what was happening in real time. Millions of people around the world took to Twitter to find information and the social media site quickly became a community of support for those looking for answers. Various Nepalese journalists both in Nepal and abroad turned their Twitter feeds into hubs for minute-by-minute updates on the disaster. Even government officials used the platform to communicate, including India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who personally responded to thousands of complaints, information and calls for rescue. Twitter's role was the heartbeat of the worldwide community and helped spread awareness and information.
Powerful Social Tools for Good
After the earthquake, a slew of social tools helped thousands locate their family members and even map out areas of destruction. One of my favorites was Facebook's Safety Check feature that allowed me to keep updated on distant relatives and long lost friends from high school. So far, more than 7 million people have reported their safety to their friends and family on the platform. Similarly, Google's Person Finder enabled users to post and check on their friends and relatives in the region and search was available vis both the web and SMS in cases where internet access wasn't available.
With hyper targeted ads and suggestions following us all across the internet, the information many social sites hold about us can sometimes feel overwhelming (and a little creepy). But the collection of data on many Nepalese citizens from these sites helped amplify efforts and connect families and friends much quicker than they could otherwise.
Although not considered traditional social media, apps like WhatsApp, Skype and Viber have been instrumental in sharing information and maintaining communication. The BBC World Service used those apps to proliferate messages and safety tips to more than 100,000 people in affected areas. Viber was among the first apps to make calls free to and from Nepal. This helped immensely as larger phone networks such as AT&T and Verizon were slow to follow. Other collaborative tools helped shorten response time. For example, the tool OpenStreetMap helped volunteers from around the world rapidly digitize satellite imagery to provide maps and data to help humanitarian organizations find the affected areas more quickly.
Many social media sites also helped spread awareness about donation options and some even began collecting donations themselves. Facebook introduced a donate button at the top of the news feed that garnered more than $10 million in just the first two days and the company itself pledged to an additional $2 million. Apple also activated an iTunes feature that allowed users to charge donations to their Apple account. Celebrities and entrepreneurs took to their social media channels to spread awareness as well as encourage people to donate to charities and fundraisers. Many Nepalese citizens from all over the world took to their social media channels to organize fundraisers and mobilize their community to support Nepal.
The power of social media and other social tools was unrivaled in the most crucial moments after the earthquake and continues to be a thriving force in sending relief to those affected. Although social media was instrumental in spreading the word, there is still much work to do to rebuild Nepal. If you can, we encourage you to donate funds to any of the following organizations: