This year, wildfires have ripped through California, leaving devastation in their paths. Only a few months after consoling friends whose families lost their homes in the Northern California fires, a string of new fires erupted in Southern California, fueled by dry conditions and fierce winds.
I grew up in the mountains above Santa Barbara. Fires are, by no means, a rare occurrence. Yet lately, the force and magnitude of these events has made its way to the history books. In years past, in order to gauge a fire's proximity to my parents' and friends' houses, I would click "refresh" on a poorly rendered fire map.
This year was different. As the Thomas Fire inched then leaped within a quarter mile of my childhood home, I sat in my San Francisco office able to gain more information and a closer look at the disaster than my parents who were still in Santa Barbara.
Can Social Media Be More Than Social Affirmation?
Social media platforms have been taking a hit as numerous studies have emerged demonstrating the negative impact scanning your social feed can have on your psyche and personal wellbeing. Even David Ginsberg, Director of Research at Facebook, and Moira Burke, Research Scientist at Facebook highlighted the potential issues as they launched a "pause button" earlier this month.
A study from UCSD and Yale found that social media users who click on about four times as many links as the average person, or who like about two times as many posts, report lower levels of mental health. A report form University of Michigan also stated that when people spend a lot of time passively consuming their Facebook feed they report feeling worse afterward.
Chamath Palihapitiya, a renowned early Facebook executive, recently stated that social platforms "are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works." Sean Parker, first president of Facebook, also stated, FB was "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."
I have written before about our newfound addiction to social affirmation. It's an overtly unhealthy addiction that is pushing Gen Z and others to seek more exclusive networks, like messengers, to connect and communicate.
Yet, during unfortunate times like, natural disasters, social media platforms can have a powerful advantage over broadcast media. They offer us critical localized information that other mediums, even television, are not able to provide. Live local news that can be consumed anywhere.
Niche Authenticity in an Era of Sensational Media
I sat transfixed at my desk, listening to the fire briefing at a local high school more than 500 miles away streamed live on Twitter via Periscope. I relayed information back to my parents who were struggling with poor reception, road closures, and the occasional power outage. As I scrolled through my feed, I found real-time satellite fire maps produced by places like the Supercomputer Center.
I started following self-proclaimed "scanner junkies" on Twitter, like Thomas Gorden, the man behind the @VCScanner, which grew to over 10,000 followers in a week during the fire. He used his hobby of following firefighter scanner channels to the benefit of others, producing a wealth of knowledge for those of us desperately looking for immediate and accurate information on the disaster.
As the days passed, I followed the local Santa Barbara news station, KEYT (who did an amazing job), via Facebook Live as it surveyed the damage and showcased the local heroes battling the blaze. It was real, it was local, and it was authentic unlike the national news stations that just focused on telling people what celebrity's second house was near the fire.
One night as the winds surpassed 75 miles per hour and the fire got dangerously close to my parents neighborhood, I found comfort not only in watching KEYT's live feed, but also in witnessing many of my high school friends also glued to the streaming Facebook coverage.
"Your parents OK?", one chatted as we both watched a local anchorwomen on Facebook Live nearly fall over due to the heavy smokey winds. It was a real connection on a platform currently being slammed for people's overly manicured lives. I don't use Facebook for my personal life anymore, but real-time news has brought it a new life for me.
That night I also received a Facebook ping from a former classmate. My small but scrappy high school, Bishop Diego, won the CIF State Championship for the first time in its history. I skipped over from fire watch to watch the live Facebook video of the celebration. An incredible moment that we were able to share with the team, despite being hundreds of miles away.
Live Video is the Future of Social
Live video feeds distributed on social media platforms can be incredibly powerful to rely information. Early adopters like my personal favorite, Jon Steinberg's Cheddar, are starting to pave the way for the future in terms of how we consume news in real-time without cable.
It's incredibly powerful when niche audiences throughout the world can come together to connect around news and events in ways that are otherwise impossible. The ability to not only access this content, but also connect and communicate with like-minded individuals while consuming is the future of media.
That being said, these platforms are still tainted with charlatans and trolls, with intent on pushing their own agenda over establishing real connections. Social platforms need to prioritize monitoring and building tools that inspire audience empowerment and make all efforts to discourage the select few whose sole purpose is to ruin the experience.
Big thanks to all the first responders and their families who went above and beyond to help these communities when they needed it most. For those interested in donating to those affected by these disasters, check out my recent post on the best places to donate.