Amidst the chaos, devastation and uncertainty left behind by Sandy, the world has been pinning, tweeting and Facebooking its way through it, in a heartening testament of the power of social media to connect and inform. Yet this superstorm has uncovered a lesser-known power for social tools: their ability to awaken the human spirit.
Whether or not social media truly makes people more likely to help others was the subject of a study conducted last year (2011 study by Let’s Heal). After surveying 24,000 consumers across the 16 largest countries, the study found social media users tend to do more volunteer work, to offer their seats or give directions offline.
We have seen signs of social good during other natural disasters, like the Haiti and Japan earthquakes, when millions of online users showered their support to rescue initiatives. What I have observed this time around, perhaps because Sandy happened in our own turf, is an increased willingness for people to go beyond the mere “like” or tweet to take concrete action to help others. Conversely, more people seem open to solicit or accept help or refuge from relative strangers.
Except instead of calling someone, people are increasingly asking for or offering help via posts or tweets. Since last week, there have been thousands of posts from either givers or receivers of hospitality from fans and followers. That hasn’t always been the case, at least not at such a widespread level. While things like home-swapping or couch-surfing clubs have been around forever, for example, they’re often closed underground communities for the more “daring” types. Social media is helping to bring that behavior to the mainstream.
Carlos Macías, President of the online community Por Colombia, experienced this first-hand during his trip back home from a conference he was attending in Houston, TX. Unable to fly back to New York, he contacted a Houston friend he had met on Facebook, who allowed him to stay in her house for several days. After finally leaving Houston, he was then stranded in Charlotte, NC, where friends from Twitter came to his “rescue.”
Before social media, he said, crashing in someone’s couch wouldn’t have been an option for him. “First of all, one would never ask for this kind of favor from someone you barely know. Social media is helping break people’s fear of opening up to strangers. Believe it or not, you get to know people online at a very personal level, it’s a direct link to their daily lives.”
For artist Edwin Gil, who along with his partner, Brian Cockman, welcomed Macías into their home in Charlotte, the willingness to offer help may have cultural roots. Gil believes that “Latino culture tends to be more giving. Even in abnormal circumstances, our houses are always open. Social media is simply getting us closer, helping us create social capital through technology.”
More and more people are starting to use this social capital to become social champions, even if they never actively supported a cause before. That’s the case for Mimi Isles, owner of a small catering firm in New York City. After starting a chain of prayers for Sandy’s victims on Facebook, the response was so overwhelming that she decided to take it further: she organized an offline event called Uptown Food Collection fundraiser to benefit people in Staten Island, NY. “Using social media has helped me to lose the fear of reaching out; it’s made me more daring,” says Mimi. “It is amazing how much one can accomplish with a little effort.”
Another social media community, LATISM*, also developed an online hurricane relief campaign, to collect monetary donations and items for those in need. “There has been such an outpouring of support from the community already,” says LATISM Chair Ana Roca Castro. “We want people to understand how easy it is to help, be it through one’s influence, by donating to us or any other channel. There is no excuse not to do it, and so many people need it.”
As these heartening stories continue to unfold, one can only hope that one day, generosity and good old neighborliness actually become the norm; that we won’t have to wait for natural disasters or national emergencies for people to help one another. When that time comes, I’m sure social media will be there to help us weather any kind of storm, together.
Do you have any stories of social media being used to help others during Sandy? Tell us in the comments!
(*Disclaimer: I’m part of the LATISM board)
Elianne Ramos is Principal/CEO of Speak Hispanic Marketing and Vice-Chair, Marketing and PR for Latinos in Social Media (LATISM). Under LATISM, she is also Chief Editor of the LATISM blog, and hostess to weekly Twitter chats reaching over 18.8 million impressions. Follow her on Twitter @ergeekgoddess.