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Boston bombings: Come together, right now, on social media

After the Boston bombings, we, as Americans, rose together in a time of tragedy. Social media accelerated our camaraderie faster than ever. It can sustain it further still, despite some of the downsides of this technology.

By Kevin F. Adler / April 26, 2013

People cheer as police drive down Arlington street in Watertown, Mass., after their successful manhunt for Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev April 19. Op-ed contributor Kevin F. Adler writes: 'When we connect around our shared circumstances....We stop collecting friends and “liking” vacation photos and start engaging each other again as a community.'

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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San Francisco

A week ago, the breathtaking series of events that followed the Boston Marathon bombings culminated in a suspect’s apprehension in Watertown, Mass., and an exuberant outpouring of relief on the town’s streets – and on Twitter.

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We, as Americans, rose together in a time of tragedy. And social media accelerated our camaraderie faster than ever. It can sustain it further still.

The brief emergence of the “therapeutic community” is a well-documented social phenomenon in the aftermath of disasters. In 1961, sociologist Charles E. Fritz observed the ability of disasters to bring people together: People “become more friendly, sympathetic, and helpful than in normal times...in this sense, disasters may be a physical hell, but they result, however temporarily, in what may be regarded as a kind of social utopia.”

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, World War II, and September 11 all yielded ample stories (and occasional studies) documenting a marked increase in social trust, civic mindedness, and sense of togetherness in affected communities.

Americans – and beyond – were part of such a civic renewal last week. On the day of the bombings, posts streamed across Facebook offering prayers, resources, and places to stay. Boston-area friends and marathon runners posted reassuring messages of “I am okay, thank you” on their Facebook walls. One tech entrepreneur purchased BostonMarathonConspiracy.com to prevent a conspiracy theorist from owning it.

On a makeshift Google Doc, entitled “I have a place to offer – Boston Marathon explosion” 4,945 people added their names, emails, phone numbers, and housing information in less than 12 hours. By last Friday morning, with Boston on lockdown and the manhunt underway, many of us became citizen journalists and investigators. We listened to police scanners, searched marathon video on the Internet for clues, watched local television news coverage out of Watertown, and tweeted and retweeted leads, updates, and comments.

This week, as most of us return to normalcy, we know that life will never be quite the same again for the victims and their loved ones. They face an uncertain journey. But they need not walk it alone.

With the same resolve as we disseminated information and expressed solidarity last week, we can use the power of technology to stay connected and take a few more steps forward together.

This has already begun. Private citizens set up the Richard Family Fund to help the family of Martin Richard heal. Fans of the Boston Marathon are sharing their stories and memories of the race’s “awesomeness” on the eponymous 26 Miles of Awesomeness Tumblr feed. Runners everywhere now Run for Boston.

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