On Monday April 19th I was on furlough. I had already written about the volcano and the online experiences I had seen. But that was just 24 hours after the eruption had started (and as the disruption was only beginning to become clear). I was also still at the CHI2010 conference, and so it was before the #CHI2010 became #CHIstuck2010 as people ended up stuck here in Atlanta. It was because there were people who ended up stuck in Atlanta that I had written a blog post, a way to disseminate information about Atlanta. So, I was already beginning to explore the social media in crisis space. But largely as a matter of trying to be helpful.
One of the interesting challenges about furlough is that the Institute requires that I do no Institute business during furlough. So, I was at home. It’s not clear to me what the boundaries of “Institute business” are when you are an academic, but I do enjoy not having to respond to email at the same speed. But, what to do on furlough? Suddenly I had this crazy novel idea, what if I tried to spend the day exploring social media in crisis? No, it’s not scientific but I am sure I am not alone when I say that experience is a good place for starting to think about scholarly endeavours. I am in Interactive Computing, and what is Interactive Computing if it is not the myriad of information generated by social media in crisis. Highly interactive, highly responsive, oh yeah, it’s got it all going on.
So, while GVU/CHI was working on accommodating our new guests, I decided to channel my advisor’s advice, to experience first hand. I would be a citizen journalist, or a computational journalist. What follows is what I learnt.
Experiences from the volcanic frontier.
I would like to thank the Reykjavik Grapevine for great reporting. It’s very sobering to see the pictures of the volcanic darkness that parts of Iceland are experiencing. But I would also learn that it was very valuable to have a range of sources, in English and not Icelandic, that were local to the scene of the volcano.
April 19 was a “good” choice for a furlough day. It was on April 19 that a new question emerged: Has Hekla erupted or not? Hekla is a volcano somewhat North of Eyjafjallajokull it consumed the twitter stream. My notes as follows:
The Twitter stream #ashtag has been very active and full of conflicting reports about whether a second volcano (for smaller but equally confused discussion follow #hekla). Some are saying that RUV are reporting it has, others are suggesting that the camera RUV had pointed at Hekla had been turned towards Eyjafjallajokull to capture images. You can see how complicated viral media like Twitter are when you look at the #ashtag stream. Google News has yet, when I last checked, to pick up any of this (either way, or the apparent confusion now generated). I have absolutely no idea how to confirm this. I thought about turning to the Icelandic state media but I can’t find them because I don’t know a) whether they exist and b) how to google for that in Icelandic, and then also (because I grew up in the UK) the BBC. I’ve now decided that perhaps waiting on Google News might work, seeing how much of the yes/no they pick up. So far, BBC and Google News remain silent, while #ashtag is off the charts in terms of numbers of tweets around this confusion, and MSNBC seemed to pick it up and now seem to have dropped the story (at least the difference between the two times I visited their home page).
Now, just a couple of hours later that meme seems to have passed, Google News and the BBC still remain silent, and a couple of people I see on Facebook have removed their Hekla posts, and it still seems to have disappeared from MSNBC). AShtag is still going strong, but I think it’s calmed substantially from earlier.
Now the Reykjavik Grapevine is advising that Hekla has not blown, but rather the camera pointed at Hekla has been rotated to focus on Eyjafjallajokull.
And now the Huffington Post reports on the initially false twitter reports. Some people on twitter are also discussing how Twitter self-corrected pretty quickly. How good is good enough seems like an interesting question here.
One reason I camped out on the twitter stream, on several tags, was to take information and retweet it to the #chistuck2010 tag which people stuck after attending CHI were following. Initially I was putting it into my blog, but that became increasingly time consuming. It was also a challenge to switch among the various streams, there was so much information coming in so quickly. I felt constantly behind. I started following various twitterers including the airlines, NATS. In fact I was surprised by how many institutions have twitter accounts. Time passed as I worked on trying to sift and filter information and get it to the right place. A substantial proportion was also devoted to deciding that yes that information was correct. So, I now understand the nature of the work, the nature of critical thinking that is required… and perhaps not everyone does critically think, but I was struck by the discussions of information quality and accuracy that I saw.
Other responses to the situation that’s now into it’s 5th day have focused on humour. It’s not just in Iceland that people have been laughing at how hard it is for non-Icelandic people to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull. It’s also in New York: we got it too. Fortunately, one Icelandic person has set the name to song, that helps. Other forms of humour (which I can only assume were partially a stress relief) included some tag lines that were quite popular on the tweet stream.
- Put bag w/30B euros in unmarked bills by gate of Icelandic embassy in London & we’ll turn off volcano
- We said send cash not ash
- The dying wish of Iceland’s economy was to have its ashes scattered over Europe.
- I’m no volcanologist but has anyone tried throwing in a few virgins?
- Save the planet? Planet must be saying, “Save yourself idiots, I will be fine”
- Red moon at night, Vulcanologist’s delight.
- Just been to Iceland. They have a special offer on Ash Browns.
- I trust everyone is learning to spell Eyjafjallajokull for this week’s pub quizzes
And then of course people had to generate accounts for the volcanos and the ash cloud.
- @theashcloud: an account that tweeted :The Ash Cloud is a little worried that because I am not from the EU my dust will not be allowed to settle in the UK”, and later “You think I’m bad. Have you seen Björk when she’s pissed?” and then of course “The Ash Cloud is wondering…is grey the new black?It’s always been my color anyway!”
- but there was also a competing icelandashcloud http://twitter.com/icelandashcloud
- http://twitter.com/Eyjafjalla (who is apparently a lava not a fighter)
- http://twitter.com/KatlaVolcano (a volcano which has a history of erupting alongside Eyjafjallajokull but is, thankfully, quiet for now)
Another set of responses invoked the Second World War.
Of course this reflects my orientation to the English language tweet stream (although oddly I find 140 characters helps me read French and German tweets also). Dan Snow, a BBC reporter lead a small D-Day like effort to retrieve Britons stuck in France. The Daily Mail picked it up as: “Operation volcano! Navy armada ready to pick up thousands of stranded Britons after France scuppers DIY rescue mission”. But others reported far more personal accounts, including the following reflection on WWII and two CHI 2010 attendees talked about how they met a WWII veteran who had been captured in the Normandy Landings, and was delayed in returning home by 6 months. As they said not only did it add perspective, but they also commented on how they’d shared this with the BBC via their WiFi connection. They shared it with me via Facebook. Our communications networks do make something of a difference.
Another thing I found interesting about the references to WWII was that the lived experience of WWII is increasingly limited. I can’t quite put my finger on why that matters, but I find it curious.
So, I also asked myself what are people doing? Rideshare is huge. As I tidy this up on April 22, rideshare is still dominating #ashtag and it is an astonishing testament of how many people are displaced at this time. And of course, there’s also the life styles of the rich and famous approach to solving the problem. John Cleese became visible for hiring a taxi home from Norway. And then I saw this on the tweet stream:
There’s a Barcelona taxi outside Gare du Nord in Paris. Someone paid a lot to get here
I said before that this really highlighted how interconnected we are. I followed reports about taking an Atlantic ship home, the Queen Mary 2nd. But the next transatlantic voyage 4.22 is already sold out and the waiting list has more than 1000 people on it. For some reason I’m under the impression that cargo liners can some times take passengers. And then there are the reports of how hard hit industries who rely on air freight are. Kenya’s farmers have been severely impacted by the European flight ban. And because major hubs for international air delivery are located in Germany and France, so the notion that you can get world-wide delivery of items quickly has also been turned on its head. I apologise if this seems like a statement of the obvious, but I can’t help being reminded again of how disruption reveals so much about the silent and invisible work that infrastructure does for us. The airlines play a central role in this. I used to know someone who studied air cargo movements and the ICTs that make this possible, I think of him and Susan Leigh Star again as I write this post. Another person who sums this up well is Peter Greenberg. As did Al Jazeera in a thoughtful report about how we expect what is not local.
And while many are not benefiting, demand for teleconferencing systems has gone way up. Also, environmentalists note that the amount of CO2 that the volcano produced is less than the amount saved by the cessation of flights.
For others it’s an educational opportunity, to discuss Iceland’s volcanoes. Ars Technica has a nice piece. Important to know is that Iceland is not a subduction zone, i.e. one plate not moving beneath another, which is the situation on the West Coast of the U.S. Rather, and I think this is correct, it’s where two plates are moving apart. Look at terrain view of the Atlantic Ocean and you see a long spine of mountains that are roughly in the middle of the Atlantic. Most of them are under the water, but HELLO ICELAND.
And so that’s what I saw and experienced.