Facebook, Photos, Tornadoes / by Dan Weingrod

A few years ago I was sitting discussing Facebook with the CFO of a major restaurant chain. To test his belief that Facebook couldn’t possibly be relevant to anyone other than teens he asked a passing assistant manager if he was on Facebook. The manager, without missing a beat replied, “Sure, we do our schedules on Facebook”.

I thought about this when I read an article about “Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes” a Facebook page that was created last week to unite people with images and documents lost during last week’s tornadoes in the South.  What struck me again was almost a final and unavoidable conclusion of Facebook’s power as a ubiquitous and easily adaptable platform for expression. Think about it, a woman walks out into her yard and discovers photographs and personal debris left by the passing storm. A few years ago all a good Samaritan might be able to do would be to sent the photos to a local newspaper or a sheriff’s office in the affected town. And the results would probably have been as effective as sending a letter to Santa Claus. Instead she created the Facebook page, photographed the images she found and uploaded them with the hope that they would somehow reach their owners. Soon people were arriving at the page and claiming photos and soon after uploading found photos of their own. The result is a page with over 83,000 followers, over 1,600 photos and ongoing uploads seemingly every 3 or 4 minutes. There are even posts on the page from photographers who will help restore images and others who will volunteer to take new family photos.

It’s easy enough to simply attribute this success to “Cognitive Surplus”, but its really much more than that. It’s a statement of the arrival of a platform that has become simultaneously malleable and ubiquitous enough that its users have begun to invent and bend it to new purposes. Photography is often at the core of this. Facebook is now the largest repository of photographs online, with over 200 million uploaded daily. But its the Facebook workflow and use case for imagery, employing  posting and tagging within albums that has made it instinctively a place people would go to find images, especially those that connect with individuals.  You wouldn't necessarily go to flickr to find a family birthday album. At the same time the meteoric rise of mobile photography, (the iPhone 4 has overtaken regular “cameras” even on Flickr), makes it simple to upload and share just about anything, even if it’s a picture of a picture that you found in your front yard and you think someone might be missing. So when you consider it, it’s hard to imagine that faced with a similar situation, you would NOT to use Facebook. It’s simply the easiest, most accessible and logical choice.

Of course this isn’t the first or most famous use of Facebook for grass-roots mass communication. The Spring Revolution in Egypt is a much more profound example of how Facebook is reshaping the world on a larger scale through imagery and the simplicity of its platform. The difference here is that in the developing world with its harsh censorship policies the need for and result of open discussion can become much more vital and enabling (and with much larger consequences). Conversely in our developed world of abundant open communication these types of mass events seem rarer because its not often that we can find the wedge where a broad platform can fill a need that media, government or marketing hasn’t already filled. Google has done admirable work in this area with their Person Finder tool used following the Japan tsunami, and the Haiti Earthquake. The big difference here is that the Pictures page is a homegrown solution. No developers were called in, no programming was necessary and no requirements were gathered. Instead it’s a continuing example of ubiquitous and easy to use platforms and technologies are maturing and inspiring people to possibilities where none existed before.