Social Media Systems in Times of Disaster: Users Becoming Participants

Our expectations as users has changed. Rather than simply reading content, we want to interact with it. We want to post opinions, share content, and distribute information. Our need to participate is spilling over into spaces we, as user experience experts, could never have anticipated.

That is unless we are already participating in these spaces, pushing content from site to site, sharing across an ecosystem of activity. But how many of us spend as much time in these spaces as our users do? And how many of us have made the shift from considering our “users” to be “participants”—active, responsive, and no longer interested in simply “using” whatever we serve up to them?

For some of us, these are not new concepts. But do we practice them in our design work? Let’s consider an extreme case that can help us start thinking about these issues: the use of social media during times of disaster. And not a simple crisis like Facebook going down or Twitter crashing. I’m talking about major crises: bombings, hurricanes, terrorism, tsunamis, war, tornadoes…

The Need for User Experiences that Encourage Participation

Using the extreme case of disaster, we can begin to consider the types of communication participants are undertaking across time and space using social media tools.

For nearly 10 years, I’ve researched, traced, and participated in multiple posts, threads, photo pools, hashtags, forums, chats, entries, and comments during countless disasters. From the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 to the downing of flight MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014, the need for everyday people to seek out information and distribute content across multiple social media channels has remained consistent. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, craigslist became an online lost and found for friends and family members in the New Orleans area. When terrorist attacks broke out across Mumbai, social media experts and participants used blogs, Twitter, and Google Docs to share information about victims. During the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, reddit and 4chan became active, if not infamous, spaces for trying to piece together the events and locate the terrorists.

Out of desperation, need, and extreme stress, everyday people work across multiple social media systems to communicate with each other about the wheres, whens, whys, and hows of disasters. They want to learn what happened, where it happened, who was affected, and what they can do to help.

Unfortunately, what have also remained somewhat consistent are the ham-fisted implementations of social media tools. We continue to present interfaces that may mean well, but are anti-social in their policies, interfaces, and information flow. We make it difficult to share content. We make it nearly impossible to verify information. And we often punish volunteers who are trying to share information by limiting their capacity to push and pull this content across multiple systems.

Focusing on these cases, we can also rethink the ways in which we configure our users as participants and ourselves as participating within these spaces. In order to create really useful software, we need to use this software in the ways in which our participants will use it. If we can reconsider our roles as participants as well as architects, designers, and developers, we will create better tools that can support more useful and productive communication. It behooves us to encourage participation in spaces where participation can lead to positive outcomes.

The Utility of Everyday Social Media Systems During Disasters

During times of disaster, everyday people tend to use the systems where they already have an established network or where they believe the appropriate audience can be found. These systems are already established before disasters, but the ways in which participants use these sites tends to greatly diverge from the use cases that the site developers had in mind when they were originally designed. Figure 1 illustrates an ecosystem of activity that could occur in the wake of a hurricane, with various people, places, and technologies reacting to this event. The lines in this diagram represent the most active nouns in this ecosystem: the hurricane itself, hashtags (whether they are on Twitter, Instagram, or elsewhere), and images. Understanding these ecosystems and the kinds of activities taking place in them is useful in mapping future directions for the designs and policies of the systems we create.

This diagram includes a central object and seven participants surrounding it including Twitter, hashtag, images, island, hurricane, mainstream media, and social media participants.

Figure 1. Mapping participants involved during a disaster event.

Think your website won’t become a space where people need to communicate during times of disaster? That may be true if you’re managing the community sites for Quicken, but I promise you that you will be surprised by what your participants do to the systems you create. It will be up to you to decide how to harness, support, or discourage this use, just as the site managers of BBC News had to decide how to handle comments about missing persons appended to news reports about the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, And how craigslist needed to figure out how to handle posts of missing persons in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And whether Google would make it easy to trace flu reports, and how reddit needed to assess how they would handle the flood of posts during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Architecting Spaces for Participation

Our users are no longer satisfied to simply “use” whatever technology we put in front of them (if they ever were really “satisfied”). Instead, they are reaching out and participating in collaborative writing spaces such as Google Drive, having conversations using hashtags in Twitter, and pinning a variety of content to their Pinterest boards.

In the case of disaster, the need to locate information, connect to those in need, and share knowledge about an event becomes heightened and often desperate. What unites each of these experiences is the insatiable need to participate. So when we think of users, let’s reconfigure them as participants. In doing so, we can begin to see them as co-authors, collaborators, and even co-conspirators for the experiences we are architecting.

In order to get a handle on this kind of reconfiguration, we can focus on three major points:

1. Users as Participants

To build social websites, apps, and software, it’s useful to think of our users as participants. They aren’t simply using what we provide them—they are adding content, interacting with each other, and altering the system in ways that we should pay attention to, investigate further, and consider how we might support it. When you start thinking about users as participants, you can begin to question how your system supports their activities. Where can they share content? How can they share content? When do you want them to participate? Why are certain spaces more active than others?

A major turning point for social web tools was Dina Mehta’s use of Twitter, blogs, and Google Sheets during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. She and her colleagues’ work created a space where participants could volunteer, share, and engage with one another across multiple platforms. Without waiting for officials to help, they used these tools in ways in which the tool developers and designers never imagined: to help catalog those injured and deceased during a terrorist event. Figure 2 illustrates how Mehta used Twitter to encourage participation. Although we had witnessed participants using other tools in similar ways in earlier disasters, this coordinated activity across multiple systems using tools in ways other than their original intention was somewhat new. This moment, and the disasters that came next, led to several user experience innovations across mainstream news sites, as well as Google itself.

A tweet by Dina Mehta: @scorpfromhell ask for help at – folks there are really working hard to locate pple #mumbai

Figure 2. Dina Mehta works to coordinate participants in Twitter by replying to a request for help locating people.

2. Architects as Participants

In order to design for participation, we must be participants in these spaces. Sounds simple, but how many of us are active users of the systems we create? Do we know how our users participate in our systems? What rules they bend in order to share content? What new innovations they might be creating on our own sites?

A recent example of this kind of activity is the new guidelines released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for hashtag standards to be used during emergencies. Studying recent disasters, including the Haiti earthquake of 2014, OCHA issued a number of guidelines on hashtag creation. For example, they propose using the name of the incident or activity plus the location when discussing specific disasters, such as #EbolaLR (Ebola in Liberia) and #EbolaGN (Ebola in Guinea). Figure 3 is an example of a more general use of the #Ebola hashtag. Their results are very similar to what my team and I found during the 2010 earthquake in New Zealand, and published in the SIGDOC proceedings in 2011. Hashtags on Twitter are a key component for communicating across cultures, peoples, and organizations. By participating in these spaces as experience architects we can begin to better understand how everyday people are using technology and how we, as designers and usability experts, might improve these experiences.

Tweet from CDC Emergency: Find out how CDC is preparing volunteer healthcare workers to serve on the frontline of the #Ebola outbreak…

Figure 3. CDC Tweets about Ebola.

3. Supporting Anchor Participants

Learning how participants use your system will help clue you in to the key members on your site. Anchors are participants who help your system thrive. They aid newcomers, tag content, validate information in your forums, and share news with others. Who are the participants who are anchoring your system? How can you better support their work so they can thrive and continue their work?

A recent example of this kind of activity is the ways in which anchor participants work to share information about disasters on reddit. Through document design and community support, they are able to create posts that act as live updates about these events. Using bolding, bullet points, links, and other conventions, they can format information to show priority and share critical details, such as telephone numbers for non-profit and government agencies that can help victims. Through their “upvoting” and “downvoting” system, the community helps prioritize information and share new knowledge. These live updates do have limitations however, primarily due to the amount of text that can be added to any given post. But redditors have figured ways around this constraint, namely by creating a new post and linking to it.

Beginning in July 2014, anchor participants were given a new option: live posts. This interface combines the functionality of a blog with reddit comment threads. Clearly understanding the needs of their anchors, the /r/live section of reddit allows anchors to avoid the posting limits in the regular reddit thread while keeping their live content at the top of the page where it can easily be accessed and read by other participants. Figure 4 is an example of this kind of interface implementation.

Screen shot from reddit: [LIVE] French manhunt for attackers of Charlie Hebdo, showing updates posted every 3-4 minutes from 12:34pm to 12:47 on 9 Jan

Figure 4. Reddit as a source for sharing disaster information.

Future Disasters, Future Participants

By using disaster as a case study, we can better understand the seriousness, the urgency, and the need for building systems that allow for participation. While these cases are extreme, they also point to underlying usability issues for everyday use. If we can think of our users as participants, our participation in our own systems, and our key members as anchors in our communities, we will better our systems and our experiences.

Credits for Figure 1

  • Bird designed by Thomas Le Bas
  • Desk designed by James Thoburn from The Noun Project
  • Hash designed by P. J. Onori
  • Hurricane designed by The Noun Project
  • Island designed by Athena Manolopoulos
  • Picture designed by mooooyai from The Noun Project
  • User designed by Denis Chenu from The Noun Project

Potts, L. (2015). Social Media Systems in Times of Disaster: Users Becoming Participants. User Experience Magazine, 15(1).
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