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Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

Chapter 3


Conceptual patterns and methodological concerns


The aim of this chapter is to build a conceptual framework for analysing the role of social media in major crises, with special regard to emergency response, from a scholarly research point of view. Existing literature has hitherto addressed the topic aiming at contributing both to public policies in emergency situations and to scholarly research. Social media have served as a powerful tool for emergency disaster management in many recent emergency situations, particularly natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. and the Queensland floods in Australia, to major earthquakes worldwide. The huge number of messages and interactions generated on social media during emergencies, moreover, constitute an unprecedented source for understanding the specific communication patterns taking place on social media, with regard to information spread and influence dynamics. After introducing the perspective of Internet Studies on technology mediated communication and social media, we analyse the role of social media in emergency response, mainly focusing on information spread dynamics, on the perspective of emergency services and institutions, and on citizens’ activities beyond information spread. We conclude by providing some conceptual and methodological remarks.1

Introducing crisis communication and social media from an Internet Studies perspective

Internet Studies is a multidisciplinary field – or a meta-field (Silver 2004) – of studies that deals with the relations between contemporary society and digital technologies (for a first Handbook of Internet Studies, see Consalvo & Ess 2011); while mainly relying on conceptual frameworks and empirical methods originating from the social sciences and the humanities, they also integrate more technology-focused disciplines, such as information science and network science. Wellman (2004, 2011) identified “three ages” of Internet Studies: the first went from 1995 to 1998, the second from 1998 to 2003; and the third age of Internet Studies (2004 to today), introduced a shift from documentation to analysis, emphasising the role of empirical research in order to understand better the way the Internet is integrated into people’s lives, and focusing on the relations between the online and the offline world.

The broader conceptual framework we adopt for understanding the communicative and relational role of digital media relies on a wide range of theories covering digital technology, social relations, and participatory cultures (Jenkins et al. 2009), with a main focus on Wellman’s and Castells’ understanding of Networked Individualism and Networked Sociability.

The culture of individualism does not lead to isolation, but it changes the patterns of sociability in terms of increasingly selective and self-directed contacts. […] The critical matter is not technology, but the development of networks of sociability based on choice and affinity, breaking the organizational and spatial boundaries of relationships […]. Networked sociability leads both to an individual-centred network, specific to the individual, and to peer-group formation, when the network becomes the context of behavior for its participants. (Castells et al. 2007, pp. 143–144).

In the last few years, social media – and especially Social Network Sites (SNS) – have constituted a major research topic for Internet scholars, not only because of their growing popularity among Internet users worldwide, but also because they represent “powerful playgrounds, both for the user and for the researcher” (Comunello 2011, p. xix).

For social scientists, SNS represent environments where identity and relational performances can be observed; these are, on the one side, deeply embedded into people’s everyday lives and strongly connected to their face-to-face sociability and, on the other side, “publicly articulated” (boyd 2004), visible, more persistent and, therefore, easier to analyse.

According to the work of boyd and Ellison, SNS can be defined as Web-based services that allow individuals to:

  • Construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system;
  • Articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection;
  • View and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.

The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site. (boyd & Ellison 2007)

While this chapter addresses the overall social media environment, our main focus will be SNS, as identified by the above-mentioned definition (and therefore including, among others, the microblogging platform Twitter). SNS are not only the most mentioned platform in social media and crisis communication literature, they also appear as one the most effective social media environments for information spread and emergency management.

Early research on SNS has mainly focussed on identity performances and on relational patterns, and the consideration of privacy issues (and the so-called “privacy paradox”, Barnes 2006). For instance, identity performances in SNS have been commonly related to personal profile shaping, underlying people’s awareness in self-presentation practices (Rybas & Gajjala 2007, boyd 2008, Livingstone 2008), and impression management processes (Ellison et al. 2006); a major role has been attributed to profile pictures and personal photographs (among others, Sessions 2009, Mallan & Giardina 2009). With regard to relational patterns, some scholars have focused on the strength of online ties (Boase et al. 2006), others have analysed friending strategies and the related social negotiation practices (boyd & Heer 2006), and others still have underlined the consequences of SNS use on the overall structure of social relations (Ito et al. 2008, Lee 2009, Lewis & West 2009). The vast majority of SNS studies in the first decade of the 21st century has focused on Facebook, which is the most popular – and least-specialised – platform.

More recently, SNS have started to become “mainstream sites of relational maintenance” (Baym 2010, p. 134), showing a seamless integration into people’s everyday relational patterns. While SNS use is being normalised, research on SNS has started to become more specialised. While relational and identity-based topics are still an important part of SNS scholarship, a growing amount of research is being devoted to the practices of applying SNS to more specialised fields, such as civic engagement, political participation, public administration, branding and consumption, and so on (Comunello 2011, p. xxi; for an insightful account on advanced SNS research, see Papacharissi 2011). Moreover, the ever-evolving technological environment requires scholars to devote their attention to a variety of different platforms and to specific usage practices.

The study of crisis communication on social media certainly belongs to such a specialised wave, not only because it focuses on specific and specialised communication and information practices, but also because its peculiarities require consideration of a variety of platforms, ranging from Twitter to more experimental ones, such as geosocial networking systems.

Analysing the role of social media in emergency response

Research on the role of social media during “acute events” (Burgess & Crawford 2011) has both focused on natural disasters and on “human-made crises” (Bruns et al. 2012), such as the so-called “Arab Spring”. In this chapter, we will mainly focus on natural disasters, as the role of social media in “human-made crises” appears to be strongly biased by ideological concerns regarding the supposed revolutionary role of social media. Liter­ature on the “Arab Spring”, for instance, shows a deep polarisation between techno-enthusiasts and techno-sceptics, who overemphasise – or completely mini­mise – the role of digital communication in Arab uprisings (see, for instance, the debate between Gladwell 2010 and Shirky 2011, also in Gladwell & Shirky 2011; for an analysis of the debate between digital evangelists and techno-realists vis-à-vis Arab uprisings, see Comunello & Anzera 2012).

Social media and crisis communication from the perspective of emergency services and institutions

Research on the role of social media during natural disasters has been oriented towards both practical work (for instance, proposing emergency management guidelines addressing emergency services and media organisations), and pure scholarly research. While such approaches often need to be kept separate for analytical purposes, our understanding of the role of social media during natural disasters from both practical and scholarly research perspectives would surely benefit from a stronger integration between practical and theoretical work.

In the last couple of years, several authors have published work on the use of social media in crisis communication and emergency management, offering practical guidelines to emergency services and policy makers. White (2012), for instance, provides a comprehensive analysis of SNS, with a main focus on Facebook and Twitter proposing several case studies that show their effectiveness in emergency situations; the author analyses the peculiarities of different digital platforms, suggests precise design strategies and underlines the role of social media both in institutional information spread and in citizen engagement, focusing on collaborative “community resilience” and participatory tools and practices. Crowe (2012) analyses social media policy and procedures in emergency contexts, also focusing on the role of crowdsourcing2 and citizen engagement (considering as well the role of “citizen journalism”); this work also underlines the potential of social media monitoring and the role of specific innovative applications and usage practices, such as location-based social media, multimedia content, mobile and emerging platforms.

From a purely research perspective, scholars have focused on public instit­utions and emergency services activities, and on citizen response to emerg­encies. Some scholars, moreover, have succeeded in proposing results that explicitly address both emergency services and citizens’ responses (Bruns et al. 2012).

Research has recently shown that digital media are strongly affecting public administration. Their impact is evident in administrative procedures, data management, the functioning and delivering of public services and, moreover, the communication between public organisations and citizens (Contini & Lanzara 2009). There is also a general request for a new phase of transparency, openness and participation (Sirianni 2009), where citizens can have an active role in stimulating innovative practices of communication and dialogue (Lovari & Parisi 2011). In this scenario, social media and in particular SNS play an important role in re-defining relationships, power dynamics and communication strategies between institutions and citizens (Castells 2009, Dahlgren 2009).

According to Nabatchi and Mergel (2010), social media can increase citizen involvement in public sector policies and decision-making processes. At the same time, Lindmark (2009) reports that through using Web 2.0 tools citizens can play an active role at different levels in the delivery of public services; for example, they can become content providers, test applications in a perpetual beta process, or contribute to developing innovative services.

Information spread dynamics during “acute events”

Scholars have analysed the role of SNS in emergency contexts, both focusing on users’ activities and institutional communication for information spread and disaster relief. For instance, Cheong and Lee (2011) underline the role of Twitter monitoring in analysing civilian sentiment and response to terrorist attacks, proposing a framework for harvesting civilian sentiment on Twitter and creating a knowledge base to be used by decision makers for effective response. When analysing the 2011 Australian Queensland floods, Burns et al. (2012) focus both on the overall Twitter dataset on the topic and on the specific activity of an institutional account – @QPSmedia, the official account of Queensland Police Service – underlining its role as a source of information, as a tool for coordinating help and fundraising activities, and for false rumour management (through a specific hashtag, #Mythbuster). Mendoza et al. (2010) have also focused on rumour management, in that case user reactions to rumours on Twitter during the 2010 earthquake in Chile, showing that false rumours tend to be more questioned by Twitter users than confirmed truths.

Rumour management is strongly related to the broader issue of information spread in social media, a topic that has been addressed by a number of scholars. While the structure of Facebook and its prevailing usage practices tend to rely mainly on pre-existing networks (someone’s “friends” and, to some extent, “friends of friends”), Twitter provides an asymmetric relational environment (based on “following” and “followers”, without the need for reciprocity); the majority of Facebook users tend to have private or semi-private accounts, and to “follow” (“like”, in Facebook terms) a relatively limited number of institutional pages. Twitter users, in comparison, tend to have public accounts. Moreover, some specific Twitter features, such as the RT (retweet) feature, that allows users to forward a tweet (with or without any further comment) to their followers, and the relevance of the “public” dimension of #hashtag conversations, make Twitter a more suitable platform for information spread (and for information spread analysis). While significant forms of information circulation are to be found also on Facebook, its nature makes it more difficult, for public institutions, emergency operators and single citizens to rely on Facebook to spread relevant crisis information on a real-time basis. Jansen et al. (2009) carried out an early study on Twitter as a form of electronic word of mouth, with a main focus on customer opinion concerning brands; Wu et al. (2011) analysed a large dataset, in order to understand information production, flow and consumption on Twitter; and boyd et al. (2010) analysed the motivations and the practices of retweeting, showing how it can generate conversational practices.

Another important topic in information spread on social media is the role of so-called influencers, people who have the power to exert a relevant influence on a large number of social media users. Scholars and market operators have dedicated some effort to identifying influencers, but there is currently no commonly accepted definition of the concept. Empirical evidence from large datasets shows that while users who have been influential in the past and who have a larger number of followers are more likely to be influential in the future, it is hard to formulate specific predictions of influence patterns (Bakshy et al. 2011). Kwak et al. (2010) have analysed Twitter structure and information flow, showing, for instance, that there is no clear direct correlation between the number of followers and the number of retweets. Cha et al. (2010) agree, showing that top users, with regard to their “popularity” (users with a high “indegree”3), have little overlap with top users based on retweets (that represent “the content value of one’s tweets”) or mentions (that “represent the name value of a user”). They also underline that “most influential users hold significant influence over a variety of topics”, while ordinary users “can gain influence by focusing on a single topic and posting creative and insightful tweets that are perceived as valuable by others” (ibid., p.11). Moreover, broadcast media accounts play a major role in influencing Twitter users.

Information spread is a particularly sensitive topic during emergencies: general information about the emergency situation itself, specific information on the conditions of individuals and information on emergency management and disaster relief (including coordinating help and fundraising) are crucial, and often hugely time-sensitive. Moreover, institutional sources need to find their way to become influential, in order to spread useful and verified information, and to limit the circulation of false rumours. Analysing the public flow of tweets related to a violent crisis in the Seattle-Tacoma area (USA), Heverin and Zach (2010) found that Twitter was mainly a method of sharing crisis related information, underlining the significant number of retweets. When considering the “original tweet/retweet ratio”, Twitter datasets regarding emergencies tend to show a disproportionately high level of retweets, underlining user willingness to share the breaking news. Bruns et al. (2011), for instance, have found that users showed a particularly high tendency to amplify information by retweeting during the early days of the Queensland floods. Analysing the earthquake in Emilia, Italy, on 20 May, 2012, Boccia et al. (2012) noted a prevalence of original tweets with hashtag #terremoto (=earthquake) in the very early hours of the first shake (4.00–6.00 am local time), while the ratio changed during the second shake (3.00 pm–5.00 pm local time). Nevertheless, original tweets prevailed during the first 30 minutes of each major shake: in the early minutes, the “witnessing” function prevails over the “information amplification” function, which starts prevailing afterwards. Bruns et al. (2011) have noted that the role of retweets tends to lessen slightly by the time broadcast media and institutional Twitter accounts start covering the event. Several studies, moreover, have shown that during emergencies users are more likely to include URLs in their tweets (Hughes & Palen 2009, Heverin & Zach 2010, Bruns et al. 2012), therefore demonstrating a willingness to spread larger amounts of inform­ation, consistent with a convergence culture approach (Jenkins 2006), using Twitter as a tool that is embedded in a broader multimedia information en­vironment (with a prevalence of image and video sharing, Bruns et al. 2012, pp. 33–36). According to Starbird and Palen (2010), messages by broad­cast media accounts are more likely to be retweeted, and local media and emergency operators are perceived as particularly valuable sources.

In comparison to what happened during the Queensland floods, there was no institutional Twitter emergency management activity during the Italian 2012 earthquake, with the sole relevant exception of the account @INGVterremoti.4 Direct witnesses and influential users, followed by broadcast media and other corporate accounts, contributed to spreading the news.

Citizen activities beyond information spread

In the early stages of any emergency, citizens use social media as a tool for receiving and spreading information, often anticipating traditional broadcast media. Grassroots information, or citizen journalism, plays a major role in covering areas that cannot be immediately covered by broadcast media. In the subsequent stages, however, social media are commonly used for a variety of purposes: Bruns et al. (2012) found that during Queensland floods, in addition to information distribution (both sharing original tweets and other media content), users generated tweets related to help and fundraising activities, reporting direct experience, and offering reactions and discussion. In the early stages, there was a prevalence of information sharing, while in subsequent stages a major role was played by reactions and discussion; tweets directly mentioning the official Queensland Police Service account show a neat prevalence of informative content. In a longer temporal perspective, moreover, social media are often used for mourning and grieving, for sharing memories, and for citizen activism and mobilisation (see the chapter by Farinosi and Tréré in this volume). Lev-On (2012) studied how a community of Israeli evacuees used a variety of media to keep in touch, express opinions and maintain a sense of community, even from long distance, adopting a uses and gratifications approach. His results show the diversity and multiplicity of media people rely on to pursue their goals (including mobile phones and face-to-face interactions). Liu (2010) underlines the role of social media in building collective memories and what she defines as “grassroots heritage” in crisis contexts, proposing a “grassroots heritage framework” for facilitating “collaborative curation”. Starbird and Palen (2011) analyse self-organising practices carried out on Twitter by “digital volunteers” after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. They focus on the production and motivations of “crisis tweeters”, contributing to better understanding of the broad concept of crowdsourcing, and underlining the enabling role of Twitter in volunteering even from long distance. Bruns (2011) also focuses on grassroots activities, underlining the role of social media in fostering ad-hoc communities and forms of self-organisation that are crucial for dealing with rapidly developing events, such as natural disasters, and also connecting such phenomena to the concept of e-democracy. In case of “acute events”, citizens may also need to find ways to express their emotions. Carroll and Landry (2010), for instance, have studied how young people use SNS (with a main focus on MySpace and Facebook) for grieving and mourning.

While the study of the activities of emergency operators and citizen reactions to major crisis can be kept separated for analytical purposes, integration between the two spheres is crucial for effective crisis management. As claimed by Palen et al. (2010) in their programmatic research, self-organising citizens should be actively involved in emergency response activities, without considering them a mere audience for institutional mess­ages; a stronger dialogue between institutions and citizens, based on high transparency levels, can be enabled by an effective use of social media.

This scenario has been further extended by the rise of location-based media, the diffusion of mobile social networks (e.g. Gowalla, Foursquare) and the release of location based versions of well-known online applications (e.g. different Google products, Facebook, Twitter etc.). Through these tools people can easily publish comments, suggestions, reviews, photos and videos and then visualise these contents as embedded in digital maps. By means of a process of “social annotation” users produce a large amount of information referring to different places and then share it with other users. Mobile social networks and geo-local services are crucial in emergency situations, not only because the mobile Internet provides connectivity virtually everywhere (sometimes constituting the sole connection to the outside world, when landline telephones are out of service), but also because geo-referred information is essential in many stages of emergency management. Among other participatory usages, a platform like Ushahidi,5 for instance, and its interactive mapping and information gathering services, has been successfully used in responding to different crises, as, for instance, the 2010 Haiti earthquake (Morrow et al. 2011). Moreover, geocoded tweets can help seismologists gather useful data for augmenting “earthquake response products and the delivery of hazard information” (Guy et al. 2010), thus improving earthquake response (Earle et al. 2010).

In the following paragraphs, we provide some conceptual and method­ological remarks that we believe can contribute to a better understanding of the role of social media in emergency response.

Some conceptual remarks

As we have seen, research on social media and crisis communication is strong­ly multidisciplinary: computer scientists and social scientists have hith­erto played a major role in analysing the role of social media in emer­gen­cy response. Furthermore, other scholars, such as seismologists, are also turn­ing to social media in order to gather useful insights on such topics. In­ternet studies is an inherently multidisciplinary field, and its tradition of inte­grating social sciences approaches with computer science approaches can offer relevant resources for a better understanding of the role of social media in emergencies. Surely, therefore, further empirical research has to be carried out. Moreover, some conceptual patterns emerging from Internet Studies’ understanding of the interactions between communication, social relations and digital technologies can help in developing a deeper understanding of the subject.

First of all, scholars investigating the role of social media in emergency response should abandon any technologically deterministic approach. Technological determinism is a perspective that assumes that technology shapes society. Similarly, early commentators mainly focused on the consequences of the Internet on social systems, disregarding the complex interactions between technology and social factors, the different contexts in which technologies can be used, the specific purposes people use technology for – in Baym’s words, without considering “what people do with mediated communication” (Baym 2010, p. 59). Accordingly, a rise in social media use in emergency response is not enough to grant better emergency management processes, if social media use is not integrated in broader communication and social processes. When addressing the role of social media in emergency response, scholars should acknowledge that digital technologies are not separated from people’s everyday lives, and analysis should consider their integration into a multiple set of communicative environments (both mediated and non-mediated).

Furthermore, existing literature on social media and crisis communication, as well as broader literature on technology-mediated social relations – and especially SNS – has mainly adopted a platform-centric approach. For a better understanding of technology-supported social relations and communicative practices, however, an accurate knowledge of specific platforms should be integrated with an ecological perspective (Jenkins et al. 2009), considering the whole variety of tools and platforms that are used by individuals. As Rainie and Wellman point out:

Networked individuals […] use a panoply of gadgets and applications to orchestrate their lives. Theirs is a complicated dance through the networked operating system. They use email for certain kinds of networked communication; text messaging, Facebook posts, private Facebook messages, and Twitter posts for others; and phone calls for communication that requires more extensive conversation. (Rainie & Wellman 2012, p. 146)

Digital technologies can be understood as environments that offer specific affordances: people develop specific usage patterns both by taking advantage of such affordances and by further shaping this architecture (boyd 2011). Our culture has been defined as a convergence culture: a culture “where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways” (Jenkins 2006, pp. 259–60). For a better understanding of the rich communication environment people are relying on in emergency situations, we need an accurate knowledge of each platform’s peculiarities (its affordances, its prevailing usage practices), and a broader ecological approach, considering the wide variety of environments (both on- and offline) people turn to in order to get information, advice, or a sense of community. For instance, the abovementioned evidence from social media and crisis communication research has highlighted widespread practices of multimedia sharing on Twitter. Even so-called “old media” can be at least partially involved in such processes. If we focus on information spread, for instance, grassroots media and broadcast media (or even institutional communication) should not be considered as completely separated. As Jenkins points out: “[t]he power of the grassroots media is that it diversifies; the power of broadcast media is that it amplifies. That’s why we should be concerned with the flow between the two” (ibid., p. 268).

Some scholars suggest that the participatory practices related to con­vergence culture are providing people with skills that could also be applied to civic engagement (Bennett 2008, Dahlgren 2009, Jenkins et al. 2009), and also, therefore, to emergency-related online activities. While this may be true for a growing part of the world’s population, two major issues affect people’s opportunities to participate effectively in the information society. So-called digital divides still affect large parts of the world’s population. Moreover, formal access to technology is not enough: for digital technology to make a real difference, higher levels of digital (or new media) literacy are required (Jenkins et al. 2009, van Dijk & Van Deursen 2010, Livingstone & Helsper 2010).6 Moreover, different platforms have different diffusion rates, even among Internet users. When analysing the role of social media in emergency response, we should not ignore that a large part of the world’s population is not using the Internet, and that even Internet users often have low digital literacy levels – or low vocality – on the Internet; we should, therefore, focus on the peculiarities of the populations involved, and of the situations we are dealing with, without assuming to know, ex ante, which platform is best suited for each specific situation.

Some methodological remarks

Crisis communication on social media has been diffusely studied through the analysis of medium-scale or large datasets of social media postings. Bruns and Liang (2012) offer an accurate account of an effective Twitter data extraction tool (yourTwapperkeeper), and identify three broad areas of analysis of Twitter datasets: a) statistical analysis and activity metrics; b) social network analysis; c) content analysis. Further analytical strategies include qualitative analysis of tweets (Bruns et al. 2012). Although such areas explicitly refer to Twitter analysis, their overall approach can also be adapted to other datasets.

  • Automated data analysis and activity metrics have been largely used by computer scientists, but also by social scientists, aiming at studying large datasets and providing a statistical account of Twitter activity, including tweet volume over time, distribution of activity across users, distribution of user visibility etc.; geocoded information can also be processed likewise.
  • Social network analysis has also been largely used for analysing large datasets, with the main goal of exploring information spread and patterns of influence on SNS. Bruns and Liang (2012) identify different broad approaches to the study of Twitter datasets in crisis communication: homogeneous networks (e.g. user-to-user networks, keyword co-occurrence networks) or heterogeneous or hybrid networks (user-and-URL networks, user-and-keyword networks etc.).
  • Content analysis has also been widely used by researchers to give a quantitative account of the textual content of the tweets; even if the 140-character length of the tweets limits the scope of such analyses, researchers can gather relevant insights by studying word occurrence and co-occurrence and relating them to specific users or user groups, to specific practices (e.g. retweets), etc.

Automated or semi-automated techniques for analysing large datasets also include sentiment analysis of the views and opinions expressed by users on social media, which is mainly employed in market research (for a critical account on sentiment analysis, see Andò 2010).

Such automated quantitative approaches, especially when adopted by social scientists, raise the controversial issue of “big data”: while offering unprecedented powerful tools for analysing huge amounts of data, and suggesting to the humanistic disciplines “to claim the status of quantitative science”, decontextualised and non-theory-driven big data analysis, as well as its “claims for objectivity and accuracy” can be misleading for social researchers. As Burgess and Crawford (2011) suggest, numbers do not “speak for themselves”: if we do not want to limit our research to descriptive statistics there is a need for relevant research questions and for broader theoretical frameworks in order to interpret big data usefully. Moreover, social media companies tend to progressively limit researchers’ access to their data, generating what Burgess and Crawford (2011) define as “new digital divides”.

Qualitative tweet (or social media posting) analysis can only be conducted by drawing a sample from large datasets, or by focusing on more limited datasets. Nevertheless, it can provide relevant results in relation to specific research questions (for a qualitative analysis of Twitter data, although not related to crisis communication, see Papacharissi 2012).

Integrating several methods can provide more complete – and significant – results; Bruns et al. (2011), for instance, have integrated automated data analysis with social network analysis and thematic coding activity, offering insightful results.

Moreover, for a better understanding of the way in which people deal with emergencies – and with related communication activities – more “traditional” social science research methods are surely helpful. Researchers should not only focus on specific platforms, but try and track the whole variety of communication activities of the user; in doing so, traditional methods, such as surveys and in-depth interviews, if selected according to specific research questions, can play a major role.

Concluding remarks

In this chapter, we have mainly focused on the use of social media in emergency response, with a main focus on natural disasters. A broader understanding of the role of digital communication in handling natural hazards, however, should consider a longer temporal perspective, including not only the use of social media during the emergency and in the next few days (which are the main topics we have focused on in this chapter), but also its use in rest periods, a topic that has hitherto received little attention. During rest periods, citizens should be trained to better understand and handle emergency situations, providing accurate and effective scientific communication, including communication of uncertainty and risk.

As we have seen throughout this chapter, broader Internet research can provide useful insights to researchers working on social media and crisis communication; at the same time, results from social media and crisis communication research can be relevant for a broader understanding of social media usage practices, and of the related social dynamics. Moreover, for a better understanding of emergency communication on social media, a broader multidisciplinary approach is needed, including not only Internet scholars and information scientists, but also the scientists who provide knowledge on the specific natural phenomena. Furthermore, we need a deeper dialogue between emergency services, policy makers and scholars: research results can offer relevant insights to stakeholders, while prac­tical expertise can provide researchers with relevant case studies and with a more nuanced knowledge of the field. For instance, research can offer policy makers powerful insights on each platform’s affordances and usage practices, on how to select the best platform for each specific context (including specific communication goals and targets), on effective com­munication strategies (both for each selected platform and in a cross-media perspective), on the integration between online and offline communication, on how to foster verified information spread, on how to analyse citizen response to emergencies, and on the best dialogue techniques with citizens and stakeholders.

Furthermore, we also need a deeper dialogue, both from a practical and from a research perspective, between top-down institutional approaches and bottom-up crowdsourced emergency response. From a methodological point of view, large datasets offer unprecedented opportunities for data mining and analysis, and have been broadly used to study the role of social media during emergencies. But to gain relevant results, research should always be driven by relevant research questions, and rely on relevant conceptual frameworks.


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1 A discussion on overall crisis communication issues goes beyond the scope of this chapter; for an extensive approach to crisis communication, see Coombs 2007.

2 “Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers” (, 24 February 2013).

3 In a directed network (a network where ties have directions) “indegree” is a count of the number of ties directed to the node (see

4 INGV (Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia) is the National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology; its experimental account provides verified information on an earthquake’s magnitude and other seismic information.


6 For a broader account of the relations between digital divides and digital literacy, see Comunello (2010).

Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

   by Tom Denison, Mauro Sarrica and Larry Stillman