Opinion

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.

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    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.'
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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.

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.”

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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.

Recovers.org, created by Caitria and Morgan O’Neill after their hometown of Monson, Mass., was hit by an EF3 tornado, empowers volunteers everywhere to self-organize and help out where they are needed most. And other start-ups continue to connect people offline through travel (Couchsurfing), exchanging of goods (Yerdle), themed potlucks (the first app by inthis, my start-up company), and more.

When we connect around our shared circumstances – the events, moments, and experiences that bring us together – we retain context and foster deeper bonds with others. We stop collecting friends and “liking” vacation photos and start engaging each other again as a community. We bridge online and offline.

This does not mean that all is warm and fuzzy on social media. In a volatile, closely-watched situation like a manhunt, emotions are enflamed, false information is rampant, and speculation runs high. We can quickly become complicit in the “total noise” of today’s media environment, which lurches toward louder clings, more astonishing clacks, and timely suspect identifications, even if they are wrong.

Yet, the suggestion that during the next big story we are better off disconnecting our devices and cleaning our rain gutters misses the point. We follow hashtags and hit retweet generally because we want to help.

We feel great empathy for the people in those neighborhoods or on those ambulances. We are still “forever forming associations,” as Alexis de Tocqueville observed 180 years ago. And so we contribute by lending a hand, or clicking share, or making a donation to the One Fund Boston, or anything we can do to feel like we are making a difference alongside others doing the same.

In particular, we yearn for this greater belonging today because the richness of our relationships is ironically lost on social networks. We are "friends" or "not friends," and easily forget who's who and how we are connected. We have connectivity, but lack context, continuity, and community. We are “alone together,” as MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle has put it.

But this can change, and it will. Social networking will be reordered around the context or cause by which we have connected and away from defining relationships directly – for instance, by having thousands of Facebook friends. And the therapeutic community that we entered into last week will be better sustained by harnessing the power of mobile social media to restore real-life context to our online ties, foster deeper bonds with others, and share new opportunities to interact and collaborate, based on what we’ve been through together.

The power of social media to help us come together is enormous, and was on display last week. Moving forward, may we continue to use the cyber world to go beyond just these few weeks and grow ever closer to living e-pluribus unum.

Kevin F. Adler is the co-founder and CEO of inthis, a tech startup in San Francisco that connects people around their shared experiences. Their first app, inthis: potlucks, helps people find and organize themed potlucks in their community. His book, "Catalyst: How Disasters Can Bring Us Together or Tear Us Apart,” will be published this fall.  

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