Disasters are social: They affect large groups of people, all thrown together by circumstance or location. So when I was at a dinner with Laughing Squid founder Scott Beale two weeks ago and he said, "The next disaster will be Twittered," I thought he was spot on. What better use could there be for a social media site like Twitter than to support people with a dire need to connect to each other and share information?
So how's social media doing in the current disaster, the Southern California fires (aerial pictures)?
As Allen Stern reports in Center Networks, many social media sites, like YouTube and Flickr, have impressive collections related to the fires. That's not exactly useful if you're in the middle of evacuating, although I don't think that homeowners will be scouring these visual reports once they have to start dealing with their insurance companies.
Wikipedia's SoCal fire page is getting updated frequently but is more encyclopedic than useful for people who need on-the-spot information.
Mark Hopkins on Mashable points out that the most useful social site during the fires is, in fact, Twitter. KPBS and the L.A. Times are sending updates out over their own Twitter feeds (in Twitter, "follow" KPBSNews and LATimeFires. These are professionally-collated news feeds, and in this instance the mainstream media seems to be doing a great job of fulfilling the public trust to keep people up to date on information that could save their lives.
Not that the collecting Twitters from nonjournalists in the thick of the action wouldn't also be useful. But for the social angle to work, the voices need to be organized somehow. Unfortunately, while Twitter allows you to "track" topics and people, there is, to my knowledge, no agreed-upon keyword that people can use to indicate that a Twitter post is related to the fire. Media outlets would do a service to their communities by publicizing a keyword for people to use.
I would recommend that Southern California residents monitor these feeds from their computers or their mobile phones. Here are links to the mobile-friendly pages of the feeds mentioned (anyone connecting over a slow link might also find these useful):
The L.A. Times also created a useful Google Maps overlay showing where the fire's hot spots are.