How Social Media Aided the Stranded

MEDIA, 26 Apr 2010

Jacqueline Head - AlJazeera

When Leila Chirayath Janah found herself stranded in the UK due to the havoc wreaked by Iceland’s volcanic ash, she turned to the medium she knew best to work out a way back to San Francisco – online networking.

The social media entrepreneur began by logging onto Twitter, telling other people about where she was stuck – Oxford – and then started documenting her convoluted journey to London, Paris, Bordeaux, Biarritz and Madrid, with tweets and pictures.

“Friends sent me travel updates over Twitter. I found out about the second volcano eruption not causing as much havoc as the first through Twitter. I kept up with people’s flight plans,” she told Al Jazeera.

So instead of embarking on a solo journey across Europe’s motorways, Leila found herself accompanied by a host of friends and colleagues who happened to be in the same cities or on the same route, after connecting online.

Leila’s story is one of thousands, if not millions, of stranded passengers turning to the internet to find friends, alternate travel options or accommdation and travel updates during the week-long crisis.

Survival guides

Within hours of the disruption caused by the volcanic eruption, the number of people using websites such as Facebook and Twitter mushroomed with passengers sharing tips, offering unwanted flights or spare rooms.

Twitter search topics, known as “hashtags”, became instant hits with people tweeting  #getmehome, #stranded and #putmeup in an effort to find a way out of the travel chaos.

One Facebook group saw passengers share the latest news, travel tips as well as their joy and misery as plans succeeded and failed.

Many offering their own homes or rooms were also victims of the travel chaos – providing their empty lodgings while they were stuck abroad.

Other already established websites, such as Roadsharing and Couchsurfingsaw high volumes of traffic with people pooling together to drive to destinations for free or relying on locals to gain cheap accommodation.

Workers unable to reach conferences or meetings due to the flight ban also capitalised on the internet by using free software such as Skype to hold video conferences.

A spokesman for Skype told the AFP news agency they had heard of executives stuck in the United States running their businesses via the online service.

Others stuck and unable to work put their mind to creating new ventures, with one writer setting up an online magazinecalling for contributions from those also stuck.

Another entrepreneur used online networking to set up a conference in Londoncalled TedxVolcano for like-minded people stuck in the British capital.

And some used the medium to share special events, such as weddings, with guests unable to make the journey.

Internet failures

But the internet was not a complete success story for those stuck around the world.

Joi Ito, CEO of Creative Commons and a venture capitalist, found many websites were unable to cope with the massive flux of traffic, stopping passengers from accessing important information.

He told Al Jazeera that rail and ferry websites were not updated with the most current information on ticketing, and in many cases tickets could only be bought in person.

“A lot of websites are crashing, a lot aren’t allowing you to make reservations. They’re suddenly over capacity.”

The venture capitalist, who spent his week waiting for a flight to Dubai from Paris, after travelling out of the UK by rail, also discovered that many airlines were advertising flights that did not exist.

He said the “trick was to work out is what reservations are real or not”. Websites such as Flightstatsand Libhomeradarallowed passengers to second guess what to book, he said, by showing where planes were sitting around the globe.

But another problem, he said, was that many people stumbling on the right information were not necessarily willing to share it with the world.

“The problem with putting that [kind of information] on a blog is that you don’t want everybody to do the same thing as you and clog up that service,” he said.

“Everybody converged on Madrid, and Madrid got kind of crazy. So the question is who do you tell?”

Putting things in perspective

But while many continue to mull the problems and events of the past week, Leila offers a different view on the chaos.

“We’ve been calling ourselves, facetiously, the ‘Volcano refugees’. It’s a joke because we [at my business Samasource] work with refugees, providing them with a livelihood by finding them work via the internet.

“This experience really puts it in perspective what these people go through – they don’t have a bank account to book a hotel in Madrid. They don’t have the resources to fall back on.

“My journey has been really hassle-free compared to what these people experience.”

Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.


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