What is the role of social media after an earthquake?

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When a 5.1 earthquake hit last Friday, it did not take long for Angelenos to take to social media to post their thoughts and reactions to the quake. With posts coming minutes and some even seconds after the quake, it raises the question: what is social media’s role in an event like this?

Whether it’s for the attention or to cope with the situation, the use of social media during an event like an earthquake is something used by students and professionals to learn more about it.

Doug Givens, a geology instructor who also works for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), says that the USGS looks to Twitter to help detect earthquakes.

“We monitor Twitter for tweets that contain ‘earthquake’ or ‘quake’ in them,” he said. “Its called Tweet Earthquake Dispatch and we can detect and earthquakes and their location with nothing more than the tweets.”

For some like Emilio Steiner, film, social media is a way to find out about breaking news. Steiner, who was driving when the earthquake happened, only discovered there was one when he logged on to Facebook.

“I didn’t feel anything but I remember my wall was exploding with Facebook post,” he said.

Steiner feels that the reason people immediately flock to social media is less about spreading the word about an event like this and more keeping with a routine.

The tone of posts on social media doesn’t always reflect the seriousness of the situation. Social media allows people to make jokes and thus makes a potentially serious matter less so, Steiner said.

“It’s become instinctive now and while some were serious most of the posts I saw were funny,” he said. “I feel like people don’t take it seriously. Yeah, it is there and it allows people to be witty but an earthquake is a serious matter.”

Others like Brenden Maier, mechanical engineering, feel that the reason people post funny and casual comments on social media is because it is their way of coping with the situation—a way to ease the nerves by making jokes.

“Because some people don’t want to deal with or think about something bad happening, they might go on and post something funny,” Maier said.

Esther Justafort, psychology, thinks that while posting something on social media can help calm the nerves, the reason most do it is for the attention.

“I would hate for there to be panic, I’d rather have people posting stuff,” she said. “But also people go on Facebook and Twitter to get that attention, especially when you have something to post about like an earthquake.”

And while social media can help out the situation by calming the nerves Givens says students can also use it to keep themselves informed on events like earthquakes.

“Students can sign up for our Earthquake Notification System at our website Earthquake.usgs.Gov,” Givens said.  “From there you can see real time earthquakes, if they want to get direct info they can sign up for USGS Twitter feed where we tweet information.”

Whatever reasons students might have for using social media after an earthquake, Givens warns students to be prepared to deal with the situation without relying on technology if a major earthquake were to strike.

“People have become so dependent on their phones for info you should give some thought to how you will function with out it,” he said. “After a big quake your cell phone will not work, try texting rather than calling, it is more likely to function.”

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