Anyone who has lived through a natural disaster knows how vital it is to have a means of communicating, whether to locate individuals or to organize means of relief for the survivors. When the 8.9 earthquake struck Japan in 2011, people around the world struggled to get in touch with their loved ones. The result was overwhelmed landline and cellular networks which rendered phone communication difficult or impossible. The Internet, on the other hand, was functional to a large extent, though slow at times.
Over the hours following the earthquake, its scope became clear to the rest of the world. People, including those who run the world’s biggest social media networks, began contemplating what they could do to help the citizens of Japan. These social media corporations hire some of smartest and most innovative thinkers to handle complex problems and so are uniquely well-suited to solving difficult problems like post-disaster communications. The Japanese earthquake, along with other recent natural disasters, is clear evidence of the essential nature of social media in the hours and days immediately after a catastrophe.
The Mountain View, California company once again brought out its Person Finder service, which it had started after the 2010 Haiti earthquake and which was also used after the New Zealand earthquake. The tool is meant to help those around the world locate their loved ones in the aftermath of an earthquake. It features a link for people who are looking for information about missing relatives and friend and another for those in the affected areas who want to post information about people. Person Finder was available within two hours of the earthquake. Aside from Person Finder, Google Maps also proved invaluable as it was used by aid organizations and rescuers as they navigated the disaster zone attempting to find and help survivors. It even helped survivors to find their way around, since the earthquake demolished local landmarks, cut off electricity and destroyed roads.
Twitter was already widely popular in Japan prior to the earthquake, a country where most people are regular users of the Internet. The disaster resulted in even more signups as people joined the social media network specifically to communicate in the aftermath. The site was an effective substitute for the overwhelmed phone services and people used tweets instead of text messages and phone calls to keep in touch with each other. Twitter’s 140-character (or less) messages were also used to relay news, including video footage and images that detailed the magnitude of the destruction. In many cases, news and video about the earthquake was seen by thousands of Twitter members long before it was found and aired by major news services. Even in parts of the country where the earthquake was not as devastating, the social media giant was still effective in helping people to communicate and to find out about everything from train schedules to the times of the blackouts resulting from damaged power plants. One hour after the earthquake struck there were well over a thousand Tweets per minute coming out of the Japanese capital.