A note on this blogs format - I will not hide my drafts until they are ready. All my writing will be displayed as soon as it's down in bits and bytes. Posts will be labeled Draft and Final according to my view on the topic.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Social Networking, Trust, and Disaster


I riffed a few days ago on Twitter and its potential uses in disaster. Fester, over at Newshoggers (thanks for the plug Fester!) responded to my post and added a bit of analysis at the bottom which I glossed over as a basic assumption for understanding the value and drive/cause of iterative improvements

Legitimacy in today's world is based upon trust.  Good information that is widely distributed through a variety of common channels improves trust.  It also relieves the responding agencies of a massive command and control problem of evacuation and crisis avoidance.

But what is trust in social networking, how is it established, and what does it mean in crisis situations where there will be many interactions based on trusting the reportage of strangers?  After all, there are millions of people in city like New York and no one person can remember all their names.

Trust can be established in many ways through social networking. The lowest barrier to trusting information is to know the person in real life.  That person is not likely to be useful for reporting on crisis or emergencies. Your friend simply isn't likely to be an eyewitness on the scene of a particular disaster you're wondering about (unless you care very intensely about the disaster because of the relationship).  The second lowest bar is the friend of the friend or friend of the colleague, colleague of the friend. You trust a person that a person you trust trusts --say that five times fast.  The next level of distance is the voice of demonstrable expertise. We have these in real life, Jane Jacobs called them the neighborhood characters that are the bedrock and enablers of any community. Their expertise, whether it be in astrophysics, the relative merits of deli egg sandwiches, or disaster technology, is widely acknowledged by the general public and are trusted based on their demonstrated expertise.

Now here is where technologically boosted networking becomes a bit disjointed from our flesh and blood reality; there are non-experts without immediate or secondary connections to you who you will be relying upon to ort their experiences during disaster. Why should you trust them?

You end up with an extended network of friends, friends of friends, experts and trusted strangers because there is an implicit trust that is built into the fabric of those connections.  Knowing a particular individual, and being on the same technological extension of a social network, and knowing about a topic and finding another interested person passionate about that topic become one and the same.  Because of each individuals orientation, training, religion, schooling, preference for smooth over crunchy peanut butter, they have found a level at which they can communicate across/through unfamiliarity. Strangers find common cause through parallel orientations.  Those parallel orientations, over time, build into a more cohesive trust that can be translated as if the referral were a friend of a friend.  

I read an interesting blog post about the different types of twitter users (I cannot find the link) where there were basically broadcasters and engagers, and the difference was readily apparent by calculating the ratio of followers to followed and by monitoring how many tweets were replies or question redirects (@'s and Retweets-RT in tweetspeak).  When you include this basic caluclation on top of hte multiple level orientations, as Fester mentions below in comments, you have a valid social network that can provide relatively good information in a rapid response time frame.  The information can be assumed to be as valid as any median person could establish in the same time frame.

Now to respond to the second sentence of Fester's quote above- how does Twitter relieve the command and control function of an emergency manager or central control point? Participation in Twitter- in building and maintaining the relationship, networks and trust- enables large movements of people to self regulate based on information being provided to them by people they trust they can trust (not a typo).  The quick updates of twitter allow frequent adjustments to be made by everyone in the network. Broadcasted disagreements with the initial reporting lead to a quickly resolved situation where the facts quickly win out (I know this anecdotally only).  Twitter was wisely designed as an impersonal social network. If someone provides bad feedback, their feed can be dumped without residual social implications in a way that facebook friends cannot.  In this way, Twitter is even more quickly the best stream of corrected information.  

Public safety agencies and personnel should learn to take advantage of the self-correcting mechanisms inherent in an  impersonal, but trust based social networking tool that increases the penetration of good information.  There may need to be legal caveats to the methods by which public safety agencies can participate, and there would need to be an experienced bullshit detector at the tweeting keyboard, but there is no reason to expect a net loss of utility and safety from twitter.  If Bin Laden hacked Oprah's account and started tweeting, the account would quickly be ignored and would lose influence.

I will soon have another post of my response to fester's double-edged sword argument.


fester said...

Thanks for expanding and extending on the trust issue --- I think you are hitting the nail on the head in that trust on the social networks is a combination of 2nd, 3rd and 4th degree connectivenesses --- a friend of a friend of my college roommate... demonstrated previous knowledge and most importantly, external verification that the sky really is turning red right now from multiple people twittering that fact independently of each other.

adhocheretic said...

Thanks for being the first to comment Fester - I extended the post above to talk about some of these issues. I need to cover zeroing on the signal versus the noise and also about public safety agency's responsibilities/expectations of public safety agencies by hte public when social networking.

Thanks for reading.