Just as I was ready to indict Facebook as a key source of our growing confusion over facts vs. reality and the death knell for interpersonal communication — and Twitter as the potential match to ignite the next world war — one Facebook friend living on the outskirts of Houston managed to remind me of the vast ability and, perhaps, great untapped potential of social media to do good.
The devastation wrought on southeastern Texas by Hurricane Harvey — Houston in particular — was mind-numbing. The accounts of all those affected were harrowing and gut-wrenching.
I saw a lot of good coverage of the situation on the major news outlets. Many dedicated journalists put themselves in harm’s way to share the story with the world. The coverage was intensive and comprehensive.
Still, when you are viewing through the eyes of a traditional news outlet, there is a perceived level of detachment. You may empathize with the despair and impact the tragedy has on others, but in most cases there is no real personal connection.
I watched and read many of the major news outlets while Harvey was unfolding. But I also tuned into an additional “channel” provided by Facebook — the postings of Trenton High School classmate Pam Gallnitz Bogusz, who has been a “Houstonian” since not long after graduating from college. She is just one of one of many Michiganders who have relocated to the Lone Star State since the late 1970s, but, as far I could tell, she was the only one of my Facebook friends living right in the crosshairs of Harvey.
Pam, a recently retired educator, was a pretty typical “occasional” Facebook user prior to Harvey. But throughout the course of the storm she was prolific, with a constant stream of both her own posts about the ongoing situation as well as shares from relatives and friends caught in the midst of it, random video ranging from strange to inspirational, as well as local news reports.
She gave me a personal connection and insight into what was going on that I never would have had otherwise. Through her posts — which displayed a mix of fear, her concern for other people’s safety, anger and frustration — I got a true sense of what it must have felt like to be imprisoned by the relentless rainfall — nonstop for more than two days in many places — and to have your life upended through the misfortune of being in the path of nature’s fury.
Apparently other Trenton school friends were tuned into and affected by Pam’s posts in the same manner I was, as indicated by this comment on one of her posts.
“I don’t watch the news so I have been keeping up with Harvey via your ‘coverage,’ ” wrote Shawn Chesney. “I just wanted to say thanks; your posts have been very informative. They have also been helpful, humorous, at times, fearful but most of all … compassionate. I have the utmost respect for you and the way you have selflessly looked out for your neighbors and friends while going through what, to me, is an unimaginable and frightening time.”
As it turned out, Pam and her husband, Gary, ended up being among the more fortunate ones. Their home was spared from the ravages of floodwater and incurred only minor damage.
The devastation surrounds them though, and will impact the region for years to come as it settles into what will certainly be a lengthy recovery.
I could not help but realize that Facebook and social media were not only a great source of comfort, but also initiated or assisted a number of rescues that likely saved several lives. Plus, the added connectivity seemingly helped many people avoid dangers. We’ll never have a statistic on that — just like we’ll never know what kind of difference social media could have made in New Orleans in 2005, had it not still been in its infancy and little more than an Internet novelty.
So, as I sifted through the numerous clickbait posts that made it into my newsfeed this morning, I am reassured by Pam’s efforts that all is not lost.
Joe Hoshaw Jr. is editor and co-publisher of the Trenton Trib. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.