THE FEED: Healthcare, social media and the Boston Marathon bombing

The Feed was my regular column for employees of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system about how the synthesis of health care and social media can influence all of us—employees, patients and the community—for the better.

The tragedy at the Boston Marathon catapulted social media, and those who use it, into the spotlight.

The tragedy at the Boston Marathon catapulted social media, and those who use it, into the spotlight.

The tragedy at the Boston Marathon catapulted social media, and those who use it, into the spotlight. Social media allowed emergency services and the public to circumvent jammed telephone systems, offer support and quell rumors in real time.

The public: 'I'm here. Where are you?'

Not long after the bombs went off, cell networks ground to a halt as demand spiked. Text messages and wifi were still up, so the Massachusetts Emergency Management Association tweeted a request that people use social media to communicate.

They were already there. People were on their own networks, tweeting and posting and texting.

Google quickly created the Person Finder bulletin board for those who hadn’t found each other yet. The Red Cross's Safe & Well site was up and running. Both sites operated well even as mainstream news sites like slowed to a halt under a tide of traffic. And the marathon's own tracker became an unwitting person-finder of sorts: if your loved one was listed as having finished the race, they probably weren't near the explosion. Online spreadsheets even sprouted from nowhere, listing thousands of people who opened their homes to anyone needing shelter.

After September 11, thousands of New Yorkers posted signs in Lower Manhattan looking for their loved ones. Social media has replaced those printed pleas for information that flapped hopelessly in the background of every Ground Zero news report for so long after the attacks of September 11. The situation is vastly different, but the idea is the same:

"I am here. Where are you?"

Such was the case with Richard Whalley, who discovered that his parents were in the explosion when he saw a photo of his gravely wounded father being wheeled away from the scene. He sent out a heartbreaking appeal to friends, who found his parents in less than 10 minutes—even though they had been sent to different hospitals, and under the wrong names.

Emergency services: Breaking news, good advice

Every Boston-area hospital engaged in social media during the crisis, but Massachusetts General may have been the most active among them. They fed the public constant updates about the number of patients they were treating; squashed rumors about suspicious packages; gave the media a heads-up about upcoming press conferences; and fielded questions about blood donations.

“Social media executes our mission,” the Red Cross's Laura Howe has said. Here's how: they regularly train thousands of professionals and volunteers alike to use social media during disasters of all kinds. The Red Cross surged forward in the social space, both with their Safe & Well site and with thoughtful posts on all their social platforms. Their tweets stayed simple: "Reconnect with loved ones,” “Take care of yourself,” “Be patient with yourself.” They conveyed compassion and were always coupled with useful links and phone numbers.

And everyone offered tips about talking to kids.

The hashtag: a one-word barometer of the public mood

As in any disaster, the attack demonstrated the importance of hashtags. The Boston Police Department used #tweetfromthebeat for anyone wanting to keep up to date with what their officers were seeing. And then, as they do, hashtags became less utilitarian and more thematic. The straightforward #bostonmarathon was overtaken by #prayforboston and #bostonstrong within a day of the bombings.

And then, at the end of the week, #watertown eclipsed them all.

Lessons learned

  • You are your own gatekeeper. In an age when every rumor takes up the same space in your feed as the absolute truth, know how to search out the good stuff and discard the rest. Keep a list of trusted news and emergency resources that you can draw on when you need to.

  • Know when to unplug. It's riveting, being a virtual witness to a tragedy like this. The promise of another tidbit of information is always a click away. Yet there's a fine line between needing to know and wanting to know; where does it lie for you?

Talk back!

  • Did you rely on social media to get in touch with loved ones in Boston?

  • What do you think of the way people used social media after the bombing and as the week unfolded?

Cover photo: Kenshin Okubo/Daily Free Press