If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around…

Most people know the saying, “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around… does it make a sound?”  Is the same statement true about the weather, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, blizzards and other environmental hazards that we experience in the world around us?  Is the same true of our use of social media for these events?  What about you… do you think you have a handle on “big events” in the world around you and what social media is talking about this week?

Let’s try this and see…  What are the biggest events going on in the past few weeks that people are talking about?

  • #Snowtober – In the United States, most people have been talking about “Snowtober” – the surprise nor’easter that impacted millions in one of the most populous regions of the country, leaving millions without power
  • #TurkeyQuake – The Magnitude 7.2 earthquake that impacted eastern portions of Turkey killed over 600 people and injured thousands.
  • #ThaiFloodENG – Flooding in Bangkok has been the top story coming out of Southeast Asia in the past two weeks, but flooding has been ongoing since July, causing Billiions of dollars in losses and at least 370 deaths in Thailand.  Additionally, since the flooding affects more than just one country, places like Burma and Cambodia have been severely impacted as well.  However, since Thailand is the most industrialized of these nations, there is now more talk about the issues w/ illegal or undocumented immigrants in Thailand that are being impacted by the flooding and can’t return home.
  • El Hierro – This island in the Canary Islands has been the site of more than 10,000 earthquakes (earthquake swarm) since July.  An new underwater volcano has formed (see second link) and a green stain in the waters off of El Hierro is visible even from space.

So what??  Why should I be concerned about these events in the world around me?  In the world of social media especially social media for emergency management and disaster response, we communicate in and through our networks.  Many times we will think of tools like Twitter and Facebook as ways to stay connected to people from work or college or with people having similar interests to ours.  But in the world of natural disasters, people will talk about and share information on events and trends that directly affect their lives OR people will share information on events that are of interest to them…

This brings us to that old adage – “If a tree falls in the woods…”

Do we really care about the severity or magnitude of a given event when using social media to communicate and emphasize incredibly strong events?  I would say that the answer is really no.  While we may try to be objective individually with regards to emphasizing those events that are stronger, we are still communicating information either based on impact or potential impact to ourselves and others.


  • Earthquakes – The strongest earthquake in the past few weeks was NOT the earthquake in Turkey (M7.2 – well now downgraded again to M7.1 by USGS).  It instead was an earthquake in the Kermadec Islands in the Pacific measuring 7.4 on the Richter Scale.  Where are the Kermadec Islands you might ask???  My point exactly…  This earthquake received a lot of buzz on the internet in the first hours after the event, but when there was no impact from shaking or a tsunami, that chatter died down.  Two days later, the Turkey earthquake occurred… and that sparked a hashtag (well multiple hashtags).
  • Volcanoes – The El Hierro volcano has had over 10,000 earthquakes since July, but this is barely reported on in the US and doesn’t even show up on the USGS earthquake map. Instead, you have to dig around to the USGS Volcano page (yes USGS has a volcano page as well), where they mention the activity at El Hierro, but it’s just not easily found unless you’re looking for it.  Quick note… El Hierro isn’t even the location of the volcano… A new underwater volcano is forming (see first link) but that likely won’t have a name until it breaks the surface of the ocean, forming a new Canary Island, so until then we’ll just refer to this as El Hierro
  • Winter Storms – The #Snowtober event caught many off guard because of the timing of the event.  Two to three feet of snow is not usually catastrophic for New England.  However since this was an early season storm, the makeup of the snow was not the “typical noreaster” – with heavier snow (weight wise) than usual.  Additionally, the timing of the event meant that many trees still had leaves and could hold more snow, increasing the weight of snow on the trees.  In this case, the amount of snow on the ground wasn’t the big factor – it was the weight on vulnerable objects.

The difference between a “big event” and a disaster is the impact.  Impact can be driven by a number of factors, but at the end of the day, if a “once in a generation” event occurs and it doesn’t directly impact someone, they’re not going to be concerned about it.  Social Media will only drive this more because it enables people to be connected with one another and share stories, videos, photographs, and opinions on the events of the day.  But when “big events” occur, those of us trying to interpret what is going on through the use of Social Media need to understand this phenomenon and take it into account when reporting on the event.

This does not discount or emphasize one event over another, but this merely reasserts the old adage that still holds true today in the world of Social Media.  You may or may not care “if a tree falls in the woods”… but when you have more “trees” impacting people and places, you will likely find yourself paying more attention than when those trees fall and don’t impact people or places that you know.


One comment on “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around…

  1. Pingback: If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around… | Disasters & Disaster Mapping | Scoop.it

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