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Life Under An #Ashtag: Online Networking My Way Home From Europe

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, April 18 2010

Sixty years ago, on May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. My mother, who was just shy of six years old, traveled with her parents and older brother and sister from Antwerp to the coastal port of Ostend, hoping to get a boat to England. Alas, the Nazis were faster. She and her family had to walk back from the coast, dodging bombardments along the way. Less than three weeks later, Belgium capitulated. She and her family went into hiding, sheltered by the resistance throughout the war.

Speaking to my mother by Skype this afternoon as I sat in a hotel room in Zurich, three days into my own odyssey being stranded in Europe by the Icelandic ash cloud, I heard some of the pain of that experience in her voice. Despite my efforts to reassure her that I was really fine, despite not knowing if I would make it home sometime in the next week, my mother, now 77, still worried. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked. I suspect that she can’t understand just how much I don’t feel like a displaced person, but more like a ball being buoyed by an invisible network of friends and strangers, all connecting to me and with each other via the Internet.

My volcanic odyssey started Friday in Berlin. I was there to give a talk at the re:Publica conference, a gigantic gathering of mostly German bloggers. I was supposed to fly home via Zurich on Saturday morning, but realized Friday afternoon that the Berlin airport was closing. So I took an overnight train to Zurich, expecting to make my connecting flight from there. But the next morning, after doing a Twitter search on my iPhone for “Zurich airport,” I knew I was in trouble. “I’m two hours from Zurich but already now my 1pm NY flight is canceled. Now what? Any ideas?” I tweeted.

Ideas flowed in. Stay and enjoy the city, said some. Others counseled racing south to outrun the cloud’s spreading airport closures. Even though I was tired from the overnight train ride, I pondered pushing further, to Milan. A tweet from a follower named Simone Veldema helped settle that debate. “Asked my Italian friends for u. Their TV says the north, incl #Malpensa is closed till 20h or 22h tonight. So stay in Zurich.” My friend the writer and activist Deanna Zandt added, “@Mlsif according to the @nytimes airport map, you'd have to get as far south as Rome. Milan seems to be closed.” My friend Katrin Verclas of MobileActive.org told me to look at a new Facebook group, CarPoolEurope. I joined, along with hundreds of others. Meanwhile, another friend, comedian Heather Gold, who is also stranded in Berlin, shared her tidbits, like signing up on RoadSharing.com. I signed up, along with thousands of others.

After a long talk with my wife, a chat with my pal Andrew Rasiej, and some diligent hunting for flights online, I decided that my best strategy was to push south. Should I go to Spain or Italy? And where to stay? Marc Lopez, PdF Europe’s coordinator, warned me that the Barcelona airport had closed. FlightRadar24.com, a site that several people tweeted me about, showed that planes were still flying in and out of rome. Other friends sent me recommendations for hotels and restaurants they liked there. I got lucky and found a Wednesday flight from Rome on Alitalia for the exorbitant price of $1994, refundable. I figured it was worth the risk and rolled the dice on Rome. (As of this writing, I’m heading there by train Monday morning.)

Does it make sense to rely on one’s online social network in times of crisis? Not every person who tweeted me had useful information. Sometimes I knew more than they did. And I certainly didn’t hand over control of my journey to the wisdom of whoever tweeted me last. But at every moment, whether I was hearing from friends or strangers, I was comforted knowing that people were looking out for me. And I got a lot of useful answers when I needed them.

Compare that experience to trusting the “authorities.” My friend David Weinberger got stuck trying to head home from a vacation in Barcelona. He blogged today:

In a time of international crisis, the Internet failed almost utterly. At least in my limited experience. Here are the things that I could not do over the Internet when, just as we were about to go through passport control for our trip to New York, the Barcelona Airport closed:

We could not find information about the closing posted on the Web when we needed it at the airport. Email notifications from American Airlines about the flight delay and then cancellation came about an hour after the news was spread in the airport. It was not possible rebook a flight using the American Airlines web site. That required a two-hour phone call to AA. The Spanish train service’s site would not take orders for tickets. It contained no information about how to proceed, or about the multi-hour wait-times at the Barcelona station where tickets are sold. There was no updated information about ticket availability for various trains. Nor was that information accessible at the train station except by waiting on a three hour line.

David titled his post “Volcano 1, Internet 0.01,” but the truth is that what failed this past week was not the Internet, but corporate and government agency websites. They’ve been rendered useless by this crisis because they operate under a no-fail rule: nothing can be posted on them unless cleared from above. Since the “authorities” barely know what is going on, they can’t update the public in real time, despite the need.

By contrast, the networked public sphere of bloggers, friends and strangers grouping around hashtags and online social networks, has been doing what it always does: sharing information, offering support, highlighting problems and improvising solutions. It’s not perfect, but it makes no claim of perfection. By being fluid, open and collaborative, it’s actually helping many people cope with the crisis. Twitter, in particular, was an incredible lifeline for me.

Obviously, social media is more resilient than corporate media. There are notable exceptions, like the KLM Twitter feed, which has been as active as any real person. (Compare KLM’s human voice on Twitter to Air France’s completely silent Twitter feed; blogger Jeffrey Mann, who pointed out this comparison, notes that Air France’s Facebook page is “full of astonishment from fans that the company was doing so little to communicate with or help customers.” (For more context, see also this post from Simpliflying.com on how Eurocontrol, the European aviation authority, is doing a surprisingly good job using social media.)

But will this lead to lasting change of any kind? I suppose a lot depends on how long the disruption of air travel continues. My friend Jeff Jarvis, who beat me out of Europe on one of the last flights out of Germany, is already predicting the end of postal mail. I’m not ready to make any such predictions.

So far, this is mainly a crisis for business travelers and tourists, groups that are generally capable of absorbing lots of abuse (either using their expense accounts or by chalking up the inconvenience to “adventure”). The fact that, yet again, our loose online networks are helping people find useful information isn’t surprising; after all, the internet was designed to route around blockages and get bits where they need to go. That said, if the volcano keeps erupting and air travel continues being disrupted, we may be about to go through some wrenching changes in how we live. I take solace in knowing that whatever happens, there is an emergent global nervous system that will help us figure out what to do next. Back in 1940, my mother had no such help.

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