I heard the news as I was driving home last night: a major earthquake in Haiti had brought the country to its knees. I still have family there, and from the news reports I knew that the earthquake had hit close to where they lived.
So I went for the immediate, old-timer's reflex: I called my aunt on the phone. She confirmed what the news stations said: it is almost impossible t get a line and she hasn't heard from anybody.
When I finally reached home, I went straight for my Twitter and Facebook accounts and there, I managed to get information that would have been impossible to get any other way.
I began with Twitter in order to figure out what was happening, and to see if anyone in my network had any information on the situation. It was all very chaotic; a good place to get a global overview of things but nothing like what I really wanted to know: is my family all right?
Facebook is a whole different story, though. On Twitter, I'm willing to connect with pretty much anybody. But on Facebook, I triage. If I don't know you personally or if I don't recognize your picture, you don't get on my list. So the people in my Facebook are a much more tightly knit group of individuals than in any other network (LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.).
Through my Facebook friends, real information started trickling in: one aunt and uncle were OK but had lost their home; two other aunts and my grandmother were fine, just rattled a bit; another uncle and aunt, who live in an area that was severely affected by the quake were also OK but their hous had suffered. By 1 AM, I had heard all of the important news I needed to know: my family was all right, and I could go to sleep (somewhat) peacefully. Everything else could wait until the next day.
I'll admit that I'm not normally a big user of any of the social media platforms. The only one I strive to use regularly is Twitter (more on that later). However, after going through yesterday's ordeal, I have new respect for these tools: there was no other way I could have gotten as much information from as many different sources. Trying to do this by the phone, or even by email, would have been impossible. With the social media tools, one status update from a friend gave more information than I could get by making 20 different phone calls.
Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and other social media sites can become a huge time-sucking black hole if ou aren't careful. As a solo entrepreneur, I have to watch out for that, which is the reason I tend to limit my time on these platforms. I use them a few minutes per day, late in the evening, which ensures I don't spend five hours.
In a time of crisis, though, there isn't any better tool.
What about Twitter? Well, I use an automated system (SocialOomph.com) to schedule tweets on various topics during the week. I do so in a semi-disciplined manner. Every Sunday night, I sit down and write enough "Laurent's Gems" to fill the week, and then I schedule them. I have found that by doing so, once again, I save a lot of time and it forces me to write something coherent at least once a week.
In all of the earthquake turmoil, I forgot to turn it off temporarily, so after a string of "Where's My Family" updates, here comes another one that tells you to consider working in a smaller company if you are dissatisfied with your job.
Yeah, I know, awkward.