Social media can be a weapon for the most negative aspects of humanity. But on Monday, in Boston, it proved how powerful a tool it can be for good – to debunk rumours, organize rescue, give directions, reassure family members, locate loved ones and, ultimately, investigate a horrible crime.
And, not least of all, to offer hope.
The #PrayForBoston hashtag quickly became the top Twitter trend, even as hundreds of Bostonians flooded the site with offers of assistance, and social media made it possible for runners to alert their family and friends that they were safe.
Australian Matt Philips, for instance, was turning the last corner of the marathon when the explosion occurred. His 15-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was waiting for him at the finish line. As he told Slate, he used a phone volunteered by a stranger to post his location to Facebook and waited at a restaurant. Annabelle found him not long afterward. "If you know Mark Zuckerberg," he said, "thank him for me."
An essential tool for the news media and police, Twitter helped to quell panic and co-ordinate emergency efforts by allowing residents to immediately access official sources. As an investigative tool, social media – and our tendency to record every moment of life – will serve as an invaluable record of events: Boston authorities were quick to ask for all video taken at the scene.
People could also use Google Person Finder, designed for love ones to find relatives in the midst of a disaster. As Forbes reports, Boston residents also used the Web to create a list of thousands of names with addresses and phone numbers for those requiring help and shelter.
Of course, the sheer mass of tweets allows for the tasteless and ghoulish, especially once the initial shock has subsided. There's a reason why Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to George W. Bush, used Twitter to remind people to take first reports with a grain of salt and not make assumptions, and to caution journalists and witnesses not flood the Web with "sensational/extreme tweets." Already the negative sentiments and unsupported allegations are growing online.
In the end, many people offered assistance that will not be necessary. And maybe sending a message of sympathy from so far away (Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted condolences and a picture of Boston taken from the International Space Station) seems like a small thing, pointless in the face of such tragedy.
But there is still something unifying about so many people from around the world calling out to each. All these positive messages, all these reports of strangers helping one another rather than holing up the safety of their homes, demonstrates that there is more good in the world than bad.
As Patton Oswalt, a Los Angeles writer observed in a post last night, "You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out." At a time when it is easy to exaggerate risk, to give in to fear and despair, it's comforting to know that the reaction of the majority is still to run toward and reach out, rather than turn away.