How Social Media Kept Me Sane (and Safe) After the Boston Bombings

May 02, 2013

Article ImageBy now, we've all watched the footage of the Boston Marathon bombing--probably more than once. It doesn't seem like enough to say that the past two weeks have been rough, but when I ask friends how they're doing, that's the answer I get: "Rough." They're right to say it; it was tough, and it still is, even now as I write this column from my back porch, a few miles outside of Boston, barely two weeks after the attack.

The marathon bombing changed a lot of things for the people who call Boston home. It certainly changed things for me. It made me love the city I live in just a little bit more. It gave me a new respect for the law enforcement officials who protect the place I call home. It changed how I feel when I walk down Boylston Street toward the Boston Public Library and Copley Square. And it gave me a heightened appreciation for technology, specifically social media.

I'll explain, but first allow me to point you to my inspiration for this column-an article written by an old friend, Zach Miners, called "Boston Blast Shows Two Sides of Social Media." In his article, Miners very astutely highlights both the positive and negative affects social media had on the people of Boston and the general public after the bombings. He notes that while these sites were instrumental in getting word out to citizens about the bombings, they also brought misinformation, sensationalism, and grisly (sometimes inappropriate) first-hand accounts of the bombings. I know it's hard to deny the facts, but my experience with social media during the week of April 15, 2013 felt very different.

While most people in the Boston area have Patriot's Day off, I was working about 30 minutes outside the city. It's hard to forget how chaotic things were in the early moments following the attacks, how confusing the news coverage was, and how scared many Bostonians were. Not knowing if the bombs were isolated attacks (or that they were attacks at all), or if other areas of the city were targets led to a lot of panic. To make matters worse, the phone lines in and around Boston were completely jammed. The only way I was able to communicate with friends and family members that day was through the internet, which meant mostly Twitter and Facebook.

Stuck at the office without a TV, logging into my social media accounts was how I learned the extent of what was happening. I saw photos from people at the marathon finish line and horrifying 140-character descriptions of the mayhem. My Facebook News Feed was a stream of friends asking for a digital "roll call." The same post came up every few scrolls: the Boston Police Department had asked citizens to limit their phone time, and instead use social media to convey their whereabouts.

Suddenly, the sites that I used to check up on Grumpy Cat had turned into my primary means of communication. It had become a lifeline.

This didn't last though. As Miners points out, within a few hours of the bombings, the "good" side of social media began to fade. From people tweeting bloody pictures to Reddit users identifying possible bombers, things were getting messy fast. I began to wonder if that was what social media had devolved into-a place to point fingers in the face of fear. For a while it seemed that traditional media, though sometimes slow, still had the upper hand. Then the events of Friday, April 19 changed my mind...again.

I already knew that even with all the misinformation, if I wanted real-time information about my city, TV was not the place to turn. That's why on the night of Thursday, April 18, when I saw a Facebook post from a good friend in the MIT area saying, "Shots fired, police active," I knew to go to Twitter rather than my television to find out what was happening. An hour or so later, when I heard a few booms in the distance, I knew what they were almost immediately; not because a news anchor told me, but because a local reporter had been listening to the Boston police scanner, and tweeted, "Explosives going off in Watertown." And when I woke up the next morning to a barrage of texts telling me not to leave the house I knew why before I made it down the stairs. Twitter informed me that one of the bombing suspects was at large in the area, armed and dangerous.

From then on, it didn't matter where I was getting my information. I just wanted to know what was going on. At this point, my roommates and I -- along with hundreds of thousands of people -- were caught in the middle of a massive manhunt. The entire city was on lock down, and we had nowhere to go. I spent all day sitting on the couch, the news on the TV, my twitter feed on my phone, and my Facebook page on my tablet. My roommates and I took turns updating one another about what we'd read on Facebook and Twitter.

#BostonStrong and #WatertownManhunt were trending. There were rumors of IED's at various Boston landmarks, bomb threats at local hospitals, and highjacked cars crossing state lines. The suspect could have been two miles from my house or two states away. No one knew for sure.

In those few hours, social media had transformed once again from a way to keep in contact with others going through the same experience, to a way to stay safe. Between the sirens screaming in the distance and helicopters flying overhead, it was nice to know what was happening during the door-to-door searches in Watertown, thanks to reporters tweeting snippets from the police scanners.

I hadn't realized how much safer I felt knowing what was happening second-by-second on the streets until the police scanners went down, and officials began asking the media to limit their tweets. Then there was silence. That's when tension started running high-no one knew if they should be fearful or relieved. All of a sudden, I desperately missed the white noise of social media.

We all know how the story ends. It's easy to say now that the media was interfering with the investigation. At the time, though, while I sat waiting for the smallest bit of information, I didn't care what they were doing, as long as I knew about it. That week social media provided me a chance to feel less isolated and less alone -- to feel comforted at a time of real uncertainty. Despite the negatives (and there were negatives), that is, after all, the whole point of social media, isn't it?