When things that are unexpected or disturbing occur, we can see what we often cannot and this is firstly why „natural‟ disasters are also social events (Burgess 2006) and secondly why “disasters expose our social structure more sharply than other important events” (Perrow, 1998). Thornbug, Kottnerus and Webb (2007) suggest that crises „deritualise‟, and thus pose problems for meaning and action. Faced with these problems, communications assist sense giving and communal processes reveal patterns of distributed and collective sense making (Kendra & Wachtendorf 2006). Empirical research on disaster response shows that the first impulse is often not just to reach out to neighbours, friends, family, citizens but also to work out together what is happening and what can happen. Social media can amplify and bring order to these impulses.
Social class, it has been found, most significant predictor of awareness of flood risk (Burningham et al 2008). It would be surprising if similar results werent obtained for other forms of risk. While on one hand, disasters reveal an imagined community encompassing the interdependence of many smaller networks, on the other hand this revelation of networks and network effects can lead to both resilience/solidarity and discord (Albright 2006). Informational capacities and their leveraging into the capacities for co-ordinated action are variable according to the pre-existent strength of networks and of trust. So we need to think about the fact that social networks, repricocity and trust are important elements of „social resilience‟ (Patterson et al 2007), and to take social resilience into account.
There is a reason why, in the aftermath of the Brisbane floods in 2011: (a) Areas with low levels of social capacity (Goodna, for instance) suffered most from the inability to insure risk and to attract „voluntary‟ assistance in rehabiliting physical spaces; and - (b) Areas with high levels of social capacity (Kenmore, for instance) exhibited symptoms of individualistic self-interest at crisis points – where affluence reigns and community is hidden, „each person for themselves‟ will tend to become a rule. The now (unfortunate) exemplar of this social law is the fracturing of New Orleans along lines of race, class, and ability. We can also see what occurred in the „recovery‟ as an accentuation of a previously hidden (to many) social crisis, a crisis of cohesion and equality. “Upstream” of the flood is the overall social story of who people perceive their neighbour to be, and how willing they are to co-operate.
So, we can derive from this a principle – prescriptive communication treating citizens as passive objects to be herded is unlikely to be optimal, and is unjust as well as counter-productive from a democratic perspective. Governance of social media emergency strategies needs to emulate the figure of the good shepherd, who goes after the missing sheep having already trusted the 99 sheep to find their own way. (a) In order to „normalise‟ action in times of crisis, strategies like emergency plans are useful and effective because they empower. Create, and enable the creation of patterns of ritual, habit and meaning. (b) But policy also needs to understand that trust is variable within communities, and to both work with the grain of emergent networks which are revealed by crisis and to build capability and resilience into networks that are frayed. There is not one platform, not one app, not one community. Twitter, Facebook can be impediments as well as enablers, and their reach will not be universal. (c) For instance, chains of communication may include the isolated to a greater degree than realised, if a trusted other can be identified. These models have robustness in small communities (as demonstrated through research into bushfires in Victoria) but there is a challenge in mapping these patterns and mobilising them in much more complex urban formations.