Social Media: Watching and Sharing as the Oil Spill Spreads

News reports are already wondering if the oil spill that is spreading across the Gulf Coast will be this generation's Three Mile Island.  Certainly if unchecked, the oil spill, currently releasing about 5000 barrels of oil a day, will rival the Exxon Valdez disaster.

I've written over the past few weeks about utilizing social media for social good.  I've focused on blogs and Twitter as two platforms where activists and authors can spread their messages and share information.

Undoubtedly, British Petroleum will utilize some of these networks in order to try to reach out to the public and demonstrate its concerns about and its plans for cleaning up the massive oil spill.  Indeed customer relations in a Web 2.0 world dictate that companies not just respond via the mainstream news media, that they not merely issue press releases and make obligatory television and radio appearances, but that they also have a presence and a voice on these social networks. Unlike more traditional forms of media, the new tools associated with social media allow for more than just a one-way broadcasting of a company's message.  These tools provide for a dialog between the corporation and the public, oftentimes on a "micro" not just a "macro" level.  In other words, BP has the opportunity to reach out -- openly and individually -- to activists, fishermen, residents in the Gulf region, politicians who post on blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook and the like.

But the gravity of the situation, the devastation to the environment and the ripple effect that will have on the economy of the region, cannot be easily handled, even by the most skilled public relations managers and the most active social media proponents.

What then, if any, can social media play?

While the tools I have surveyed so far emphasize the importance of storytelling and information and link sharing, social media is only partially reliant on text.  Indeed, much of the power of the new social media technology rests in its inclusion of other forms of media -- namely visual media in the form of photography and video.

Arguably, it may be the visual representation of disasters like the oil spill that have the most profound impact.  Photos of oil-covered birds and other sea life can provide a far more lasting image in your imagination than can statistics and news reports.

Sites like Flickr and YouTube and others that allow for the relatively easy distribution of these images provide the opportunity for those intimately impacted by the oil spill record their experiences and share them with as wide an audience as possible.  Social media allows for the sharing of these images, most notably from those most intimately involved in the crisis.

And hopefully, as with other campaigns for social justice, social media will be utilized to help rectify the situation in the gulf and to make sure BP is held accountable.

Photo from Flickr