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in which we discover that even twitter is on fire

September 9, 2010

Boulder is a strange place, for sure, and certain things can only happen in such a strange place…like twitter saving lives.

Burned-out house in the Fourmile Fire. Also serves to illustrate my points about Boulder. Image credit: Daily Camera and Mark Leffingwell.

While the reputation here is mostly one of free lovin’, granola-munching, tree-hugging hippies (thanks, 1969), in actuality, most of the city’s full-time residents are from some sort of delusional parallel universe where shopping at Whole Foods and driving the newest model of the Toyota Prius (you know, one that stops when you ask it to) are the best things you can do to help the environment.  So, by being populated by citizens from this delusional parallel universe, and getting a helping hand from lots of local ordinances that effectively make Boulder into a gated community that would fit in nicely in Cary, NC, Boulder has turned into some sort of bizarre utopia for upper middle class white folks who still cheer for Al Gore, constantly purchase the newest eco-friendly products, and buy only organic produce.  Even if it means choosing produce from friggin’ New Zealand over something that was grown <200 miles away on the western slope, and if it means throwing away something perfectly functional to replace it with something newer and eco-friendlier.  Oh, and everybody has an iPhone.  Everybody.

You may have noticed a certain disgust I have with my adopted town and its stupid consumption-based “activism” and stupid anti-student housing ordinances (which I have been breaking with gleeful abandon since the very first day I moved here).  Grrrr.  It’s just irrational and exclusive, to the detriment of the town, and I don’t just think that because I don’t have the money to participate in this strange “utopia.”

Bearing this description of Boulder in mind, consider this: in the Fourmile Fire disaster (now the most property-destructive in Colorado’s history, with 169 homes confirmed destroyed as of this posting), when the city’s emergency notification system failed, the evacuation message was spread on twitter and facebook instead.  Twitter has also been the best source of information throughout the evolving disaster (usually by keeping reliable links coming more than providing factually accurate information by itself), and the best map of the fire area is being built collaboratively on google.  I don’t have either a twitter or facebook account, but I’ve been able to follow both using google’s update function, and the Daily Camera’s scrolling twitter feed for everything with the #boulderfire hashtag.  It’s pretty cool to see the news and anecdotes and offers of help for the evacuees and those who lost their homes roll in in real time whenever I sit down to check out the news.

The role of social media in our society is something that’s constantly discussed on the internet (self-selecting audience much?) these days, and whenever it does something actually useful, this is even more true.  I’ve seen at least two blog posts (no doubt there are more, but I have to work y’know) pick this up in the past couple days, both written by locals.  The first one I saw is one I like more, “How #boulderfire changed my perspective on twitter.”  It’s useful to follow that link if you don’t know much about twitter, since it does explain a bit what I’m talking about here.  If you are familiar, however, this is the bit that really stuck with me (emphasis mine).

These last few days, I’ve thought a lot about the firefighters risking their lives and the adversity our community is facing. And perhaps it seems strange, but the last few days have also opened my eyes to the true value of Twitter. Twitter isn’t just for self-proclaimed internet marketing experts and Justin Bieber fans, Twitter can literally help a community organize, communicate, and respond effectively and rapidly to a natural disaster. Normal citizens can provide invaluable information, resources, and support to those in need (or to those who are just plain curious). We, as a community, wouldn’t be able to do that as quickly or as easily without Twitter.

I might add the caveat that “we, as a tech-savvy and wealthy community (reference my gripes about Boulder above), wouldn’t be able to do that as quickly or easily without twitter,” but the point stands.  In certain instances, twitter can have a real and useful function in our lives.

Inevitably, this was also picked up by HuffPo (I refuse to link you to their home page, since it’s the internet version of Boulder), here.

We are living in an age where connecting, engaging and building community happen in ways we could not even imagine just five years ago. Tragedies are never easy to weather, but hopefully the prominent role social media has taken in our lives will be one additional way to help, heal and maybe even save lives, when disaster inevitably strikes.

The rest of the article is all even more examples of the ways people are using social media to connect about the fire than I’ve even given you here.  “Just five years ago” might be approximately accurate, but I do want to point out one huge example from three years ago, where social media also played a gigantic role in helping a community connect and save lives: the V. Tech massacre (link to wikipedia, in case you forgot what that was, shame on you).  As I was in my last semester of college at the time, and had friends at V. Tech, perhaps I was more aware than most, but within an hour of the shootings, there were people broadcasting messages on facebook that they were safe to their families and friends, and groups popping up called things like “I’m okay at V. Tech” with hundreds, then thousands of members.

In the worst of situations, social media like facebook and twitter can be an incredible way to reach a large group of people at once, and that’s great, if you keep in mind that your audience will be hugely self-selected and almost entirely middle or upper class.  It can really only work in towns like Boulder, or on college campuses.  Can you imagine, for instance, if authorities had used twitter to spread the word about evacuations before Hurricane Katrina?  Would it have helped (nevermind that this is five years ago like the HuffPo article said, just imagine it today)?  I can’t help but feel that the same people would have been left behind.  Or, if this disaster had happened where I grew up, at the intersection of rural, agricultural NC with the high-tech Research Triangle Park NC, that half of the people I knew would never have gotten the message.

While the Fourmile Fire is a success story for social media this time, I can’t help but worry that we should always be wary of applying its lessons with too broad a brush, lest we leave whole communities behind.

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5 comments

  1. Thank you for the kind words on my post.


  2. It’s funny how the same memes persist for so long, even when they’re inaccurate. You sound just like me when I had lived here about the same amount of time.

    It’s not (strictly speaking) the hippies’ fault. The folks who lived here at the outset of the hippie invasion were right pissed at the “dirty” hippies, and imposed the housing restriction most familiar to you: 3 unrelated people/house, or 4 in some areas.

    But other changes were already in place: the Blue Line (above which the City would not deliver water) is from the ’50s (and was promoted as a growth-inhibiting measure by none other than physics Professor Emeritus Al Bartlett– OK, he wasn’t Emeritus yet in the ’50s, but you get the point). It was a referendum or whatever we vote on. And after that was ineffective at slowing residential growth, the Danish Plan was imposed (again by popular vote, mind).

    The reason housing is so out-to-lunch here (aside from folks wanting to live here, what with it being relatively pleasant since it isn’t like Broomfield), is that at the same time as the Danish Plan was implemented the City’s master plan called for enough industrial/office/business space that everyone in town could have two jobs once both the residential and business development was complete. Every one. Since in a healthy community only half of the people have one full-time job (kids in school, retirees, lay-abouts, etc.), you can see that *way* too many people have to commute in. And since commuting sucks, you can see how housing would be expensive, relatively.

    Of course, there’s a little too much enthusiasm for maintaining this quality of life without appreciating that it dumps a worse quality of life on others, but that’s the problem with “local” control. Sometimes it’s a bit too local.

    Just a thought.

    Oh, and I *don’t* have an iPhone.


    • I know I know. I’m a newbie and should stop complaining…but it gives me something to complain about that’s not science. I actually do like a lot about Boulder, and am glad to live here. Just sometimes, I miss living in a more down-to-earth sort of place.

      Also, that job plan is insane. Thanks for clarifying where the hell such wild insanity originated, as I had no idea and had never heard of such lunacy.


    • I should add that Alia doesn’t even have a cell phone. F*ing Luddite!


  3. I would hesitate to call it a “plan”. As with so many things it’s almost certainly an unintended consequence. But having recognized it some years ago, the best we could do was build an insane number of condos (witness all of the condos and town-homes in N Boulder– all of which are widely regarded as a compromise to the only real solution to the problem: transforming the zoning plan for the city into a plan that would slowly reduce the number of potential industrial/business sites, or making them parks).

    Why “the best we could do”? Well, if you moved here in the 70s or 80s and bought a house, you’re insanely wealthy on that basis. Even if you haven’t improved it. Creating enough housing to satisfy real demand would drive prices down (duh!). Those people would be right pissed. And they vote.

    But don’t apologize for being a newbie, and complaining. Truthfully, to me, the things that make Boulder a place to live that’s wonderful are the *lack* of “down-to-earth” people. In my recent experience those are people who’ll sell their souls to live here, in the process not realizing that the only thing that can make this place better is remaining soul-full. A long time ago I decided that I’d rather sell everything else to live here than sell my soul for more space between me and my neighbor. It’s a trade-off that’s served me very well.



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