My hometown of Columbia, South Carolina was pummeled by a once-in-a-lifetime storm this weekend. Over a foot of rain in less than 24 hours. Creeks, rivers and ponds overflowed. Dams gave way. Interstates were flooded and closed. Neighborhoods were evacuated.
Early Sunday — before I really understood the magnitude of what was going on — I walked down to check on the creek at the entrance to my neighborhood. As I walked down the hill, I could hear the roar of rushing water. The bridge was closed and the creek was massively overflowing. People were stopping and taking pictures. I stopped and took photos, too.
Normal people are documenting the terrible things happening around them and sharing them with friends and news outlets. Every person with a cellphone is a reporter.
As the day progressed, I got a constant stream of updates from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. What roads are flooding? How much longer is it going to rain? Videos and pictures of roads underwater, bridges failing and daring rescues. It was a very personal and terrifying way to experience a natural disaster.
I remember Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which was the biggest natural disaster I had experienced personally. We followed the TV news and got updates from morning and afternoon papers. Without the internet, it was challenging to get much detail on what was going on.
Now, in 2015, I watched a little bit of storm coverage on the Columbia NBC affiliate, WIS, but most of my news came from Twitter. Getting information wasn't a problem at all. Information was coming from all directions.
In a crisis, this flood of information from social media is disorienting. Immediate. Powerful. Raw. Intense. There is an overwhelming sense of anxiety. It's also unfiltered. Serious news, alerts, hoax and rumors are mixed with NFL banter, cat videos, tech talk, ads and more.
As communicators in a social media environment, we need to accept this complex environment and figure out ways to help our audiences process what is happening around them. The goal should no longer be about simply adding more stories, pictures and videos to a vast virtual stream. Anyone with a iPhone can do that. Our value is in structuring and organizing information and in presenting clear, relevant messaging when our community needs it.