Social Media's role in events and catastrophes
The recent catastrophe at the Loveparade in Duisburg, Germany once again showed how Social Media has changed the way we produce and share information and thus how news are made today. Information has been democratized. No longer are we dependent on the information provided by the government or the nearest newspaper. News arrive immediately and right from the place where it happens. Information helps us mak better decisions. It is not far-fetched if some argue that tomorrow’s wars are no longer won by the better equipped army but by the better informed army.
To provide a better impression of the point I am trying to make here, I have simplified the events and grouped them into three stages: before the event, during the event and after it. In this order, I will discuss the role Social Media has or could have played.
Running Social Media analysis tools could have provided a good impression of how many people were expected to show up in Duisburg. As we all never „walk alone“, we ususally try to attend events with our dearest friends or at least with people who share the same interests as we do. Thus many of the guests used social communities and platforms to organize. They talked about the upcoming event on Twitter and in blogs and forums in order to inform themselves about the event. They searched for recommendations of experienced love parade goers to find out about how to best get there, where to spend the night, etc. Aside from all the hype and anticipation, there were also critical voices who no only spoke out their concerns but also wrote them down: in forums, blogs, social communites or on Twitter. Obviously they were not heard or not considered important (maybe the recent trend of crowdsourcing has not arrived in this segment)
Both aspects can be traced afterwards as „the internet does not forget things…“
Major events attract thousands of people. The closer you come to the center of action, groups merge with bigger groups, join the stream of people and become masses of people. And usually there is only one way: forward. One easily looses orientation and even has trouble staying together as a group.
Sounds as chaotic as an anthill at a quick glance. But ants do not collide. While the ants usually have total control of the situation, humans easily get lost. In fact many experts who deal with behavior analysis or traffic analysis ofte draw parallels to animal kingdom. Very often animals seem to have become experts when it comes to organize large numbers.
Humans also manage to get along. Take a big railway station or an airport for example. Thousands of people each with different destinations manage to get along without permanently crashing into one another. I experience this a lot. And it works perfectly fine. Individual distance is one of the phenomenon helping us to find our way. But there are limitations. As soon as the crowd is very heterogenous this automatic sense for passing by does no longer work. We see this on the autobahn (highway) or during rush hour in public transportation when everyday commuters meet people on a holiday trip, or when young dynamic people mix with elderly more slow people. Their different habits and speeds collide. The same goes for large audience who often due to small causes panic.
Is there a solution? Well yes, communication is one way. But as soon as a certain number of people is reached this won’t work anymore, there are simply too many people. Here cell phones and text messages but also microblogging services such as Twitter but also facebook for your phone could be of great help to communicate and to get rational objective information about what is going on. While in the Woodstock era you had no chance of sharing information with people in the distance, today many of us become real-time reporters, sharing their impressions by text, image or even video. These news are often very accurate and foremost, they are fast as hell. People report things as they happen.
And things happened in Duisburg. People attending the love parade not only broadcasted the fun and joy but also the fear and panic when all of a sudden there were simply too many people for a narrow tunnel.
This reminded me of Crowdsourcing, another buzz word in marketing these days and a technique often used to solve complex problems. While there are some who praise crowdsourcing to be the source of all solutions, others deem it to be inefficient and an illusion. Or in other words: the crowd is stupid so better rely on few experts. Now with the Duisburg loveparade case, one could argue that yes, the masses were stupid or behaved in an irrational and fatal way. Having put the decision into the hands of one single smart leader could have avoided the panic. Maybe. But how do you want to communicate in a group of several hundred thousand people and why should they listen and to whom? Impossible.
Also, crowdsourcing is a strategy that can be applied only to a certain fixed situation. It requires that you are free to choose between alternatives and also have the time to do so. In the case of the loveparade the crowd had no moderator or leader who organized them and could have filtered every single persons best strategy. Thre was no structure behind like when you ask 20 people to guess the exact weigth of any given person. But even when there is no framework, crowdsourcing techniques may work for a limited number of people. But without a framework, even Social Media cannot provide the necessary transparency to bring some order into the masses. In sum, there were simply too many people, they were in a state of lacking information or a lacking transparent information and their actions where impulsive, subjective and rather reactions. There was no control and thus panic.
However, Social Media did have a positive effect: it enabled people to use their cell phones and communicate to the braod public that something was going wrong here. In real time.
POST EVENT PHASE:
Merriness soon turned into madness. But even with all the sad events having happened, Social Media again plays a helpful role. It enabled people to contact their friends, discuss their impressions and thus provide first-hand information to the public. Forums and blogs as well as social networks enabled people to get into contact. Again, the fact that the internet has a pretty good memory turns out very helpful for the police and other institutions investigating the case. It is as if the whole area had been plastered with video cameras and paparazzi. User-generated content now becomes highly relevant material for the case. And there is plenty. „love parade 2010“ returns 7460 video results on youtube.com
Hopefully this will contribute to find out who is to be hold responsible for the panic.
As for the extreme speed at which Social Media travels, it raises the question if analyzing Social Media is not a mandatory element for major events. Just as major corporations and consumer brands should always keep track of what is being said about them. Maybe then, previous warning messages posted by people familiar with the Duisburg area or those who have participated in previous loveparades would have been heard and taken into consideration. As smart as the sum of minds may be, in a state of panic humans often behave irrational and counterproductive. Looking into animal kingdom may be of help to better organize masses. During an event the possibilities to control a group are limited. It is best to provide in advance options to escalate the event. And one should always take into account the worst case. As said before, masses are irrational…