10 Feb 2009

Word Spreads Like Wildfire Online

By Blog Watch
Social media sites and blogs had up-to-date information about the Victorian bushfires long before the traditional media
Since Victoria's bushfire tragedy began to unfold on Saturday, social media tools including Twitter, Facebook and Flickr have completely out run traditional media sources with up to date reports, news and observations.

Mark Parker from the Smart Selling blog posted:

"Today I've seen first-hand what the future holds for news and information distribution. This afternoon in Brisbane, while our major media networks ran standard programming, I followed the flow of news of the devastation primarily via Twitter (thanks to @cfa_updates and @774melbourne).

"It struck me as odd that as I updated my wife she couldn't believe what I was saying as the TV either wasn't up to date or the networks felt it wasn't important enough to run anything more than hourly updates..."

"It angers me that as I was getting official reports from credible/reliable sources this same information was taking hours to get distributed into the mainstream community. It wasn't until close to 8pm AEDT [Saturday] that the Australian mainstream press finally started providing timely updates — nice work team."

Twitter in particular, with automated updates via RSS feeds, has come into its own during this disaster. The Twitter account for the Country Fire Association in Victoria (@cfa_updates) is unauthorised by the association, yet is scheduled to provide updates every 30 minutes based on reports from their site. Between 14:50hrs and 15:00hrs on 7 February, 31 incidents were added to the Twitter feed. Other key Twitter accounts such as ABC Melbourne Radio (@774melbourne) and SBS News (@sbsnews) have provided incident summaries, warnings and imminent threats, as well as announcements about local community meetings.

The blogs for radio stations ABC Radio Victoria and Triple M Brisbane radio show, The Cage, have also become great sources for information, updates and a space for the public to post condolences.

Google's blog posted an update on Sunday announcing a mash-up of their map feature, tracking the Victorian bushfires. A Google map of the area is updated in real-time with the latest fire information from the CFA website via an RSS feed.

Groups on social networking site Facebook, have also been created in response to the weekend's events. Some popular ones include "Victorian Bushfires — Do your part to help" and "Thoughts for those affected by the Victorian Bushfires"

One group is suggesting train service provider, Connex, assist with the distribution of food, clothes and bedding as it travels to towns affected by bushfire:

"I hope to propose a plan which may help assist those that have lost belongings and homes in the Victorian bushfires ... It would be good to see Connex (trains) coordinate a program whereby regional trains (although run by V/Line) leave from Melbourne towards fire effected areas and stop at all stations so that we can donate food, beds, clothing etc put directly to the train and delivered to the required areas."

"Sounds logistically possible and I think Connex could give something to the Victorian people."

In compensation for all those late-running trains? The group has 261 members and counting...

There are also Facebook events, such as "Buy A CFA Volunteer A Beer Day".

None of these services or features may prevent fire damage or loss of life but as an immediate method of distributing information, social media sites have proven some of the most effective in the past 72 hours.

Of course, not all of them are particularly informative. News Ltd sent "colour writer" Caroline Overington (@overingtonc) to the bushfires on Monday and she has been posting on Twitter as she drives through the area. Soon after arriving she posted: "Volunteers have to force them to take more than one pair of pants." And then, "They don't seem to get they have nothing". It appears it is a new Twitter account and Overington is using the medium like she's live blogging on the Oz's site. Too many out of context tweets make no sense among a rolling Twitter feed.

Meanwhile, Flickr users have added hundreds of images from the fires here, and YouTube has also been part of the social media story with video compilations such as Hell On Earth: The 2009 Victorian Bushfires trying to make sense of this great, unfolding tragedy.

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Posted Tuesday, February 10, 2009 - 12:48

Thanks for the mention New Matilda.

We're working with a couple of other bloggers to write a detailed follow-up post based on our observations. Happy to send this to you.

As sad as the situation is, it does lead us to question how we communicate and how we can tie these communication methods together in times like this.

I'd personally like to run a conference for every emergency service organisation around Australia to educate them and get some consensus on what can be put in place to help next time.


Mark Parker
(0414) 72 5549

Posted Tuesday, February 10, 2009 - 14:31

@SkyNewAust is also providing updates from the CFA and information about road closures in Victoria, links to Google bushfire maps and ways people can donate to those affected by the emergency.

Posted Tuesday, February 10, 2009 - 14:55

Malcolm Turnbull was also using his Twitter @turnbullmalcolm to update people on the fires and what he was doing.

Posted Tuesday, February 10, 2009 - 16:22

I still don't understand what twitter is. Can anyone help?

Posted Tuesday, February 10, 2009 - 16:55

JamesK - Malcolm had two Tweets (up until today) about #bushfires. I don't think that counts.

Just one more Tweet today, re: statement in Parliament.

Posted Tuesday, February 10, 2009 - 22:31

Cut the clever comments until this horrific disaster is over.

I want NM to take responsibility for pulling out of this discussion until the fires are out.

My subscription to this site is hovering on the line. Be useful or shut up!

Posted Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 10:17

I was asked to post for <a href="http://globalvoicesonline.org/">Global Voices</a> about the fires and there has been an amazing international response: <a href="http://globalvoicesonline.org/2009/02/09/australia-bushfires-devastate-v... Bushfires devastate Victoria</a>

GV presents roundups of what bloggers are saying in a particular country about a specific topic. The posts are often translated into other languages. The record is 20 languages. Contributors are expected to be objective and not express their own opinions. Hard to do!

Well worth a visit.

Kevin Rennie

Dr Dog
Posted Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 10:39


It is clear that you have some considerable personal connection with the fires and I want to extend my condolences to you for personal losses. Certainly for those greiving it may be too soon for comments or evaluation.

I would point out though that grief manifests in many ways. I beleive that many may try to deal with the pain and confusion of these events through these discussions. I can't say if they are right or wrong but must insist on their right to handle it in their own way. I am positive, knowing country men as I do, that these discussions are happening even among volunteer firefighters.

Surely you are right that the really useful discussions will be during the Royal Commission and much later, however I can well imagine that for the less empathetic but very practical minded amongst us, these discussions may provide an opportunity for better understanding these horrible events.

I don't mean to chide you, but would respectfully suggest that it is you who ought withdraw in order to deal with your own strong feeling about this tragedy.