Word Spreads Like Wildfire Online


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.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.