Katrina’s Lost Lesson

A view of Katrina from space, courtesy of NASA

A view of Katrina from space, courtesy of NASA

In 2005, when Katrina hit, my father-in-law was elderly and living alone in Slidell, LA. It took us five days before we were able to make phone contact with him and know for sure that he was OK. He had planed to go to a shelter (or so he said), but instead the 78-year-old New Orleans native decided to hunker down. As the waters rose in his geodesic dome home, he carried his oxygen tank slowly upstairs to the loft. The windows were leaking storm water and the branch of a large oak tree came down through his roof during the storm…but he survived.

From our home on the West Coast, we watched on TV and were horrified to see the homes in Slidell shredded in piles like match sticks. We could not reach my father-in-law or his neighbors by phone. I went to an online chat room hosted the New Orleans newspaper, The Times Picayune (NOLA.com), and continued to ask locals if they had any information on my father-in-law’s neighborhood. The next day, a utility worker answered, and told me that the floodwaters had only reached 3-4’ high in that neighborhood, and all the houses were still standing. He assured me that the US Navy Seabees were going door-to-door in the neighborhood and distributing fresh water.

It was three (long!) days after the news from the online chat room that we were able to talk with my father-in-law and arrange for him to relocate to the West Coast. Although we were still worried, the online community helped us learn the true state of his neighborhood and helped relieve our anxiety. Living through that experience helped me to formulate the positive attitude I have about the value of online communities. Their growth in the decade since Katrina has validated their usefulness – from providing chronically ill patients with support to encouraging thousands of volunteers to help with wildfires in Washington State

Although connected in cyberspace, online communities are people who are place-based.

However, one lesson hasn’t been fully realized by organizations in the decade since Katrina – the recognition that although connected in cyberspace, online communities are people who are place-based with unique perspectives, needs and experiences. People’s lives are impacted by their geographic location – from weather, to fire dangers, to entertainment opportunities, to support from local charities, to gas prices. Although organizations have the technology and often analyze geographically centered conversations about their brand for marketing insights – they rarely make that an easy option for their social media followers. If social media users are enthusiastic enough to do some work on their own, there are apps that can filter via geography – but most users don’t bother.

Hash-tag-narrowed conversations aren't always necessary or desirable 

Many organizations will argue that they’ve acted on this understanding that people are place-based and so they facilitate connections with geographic-rich content. For example, many organizations' owned media channels (primarily websites) offer users the opportunity to enter their zip code and the organization will locate a product, store, or related events in their area. Although this is a first step, the organization is still controlling the content like the “broadcast” model of days gone by. The organization is still providing publics with what they think users in that area need. Why not implement software to help them glimpse at the social media participants who are active in their region related to your product, event or organization without needing to be plugged into a specific hash tag? This plan for connecting users is broader than event or place-based hash tags because it does not attempt to narrow conversations to the hash tag topic. This broader way of connection social media users facilitates only the connection, not the content.

Contradicting the "content is king" disciples

Although this may seem contradictory to the “content is king” disciples, facilitating connection without an institutional agenda is the purest form of content an organization can create. And if you listen closely to those you’ve connected as they share content with each other, you’ll be exposed to a more nuanced view of how being in a place impacts them, and you’ll be able to share a greater understanding of the people and their place with your organization.