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Social Media in a Time of Crisis (As Illuminated by the Earthquake in Christchurch)

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I've been watching as Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and now Libya used social media to effect change, reaching across global borders, social borders, and political borders in voicing opinions, gaining momentum for a movement, and taking the Middle East forward in an ever-changing world. As I watch history unfold, I'm reminded that as Americans, we sometimes take our liberties for granted. We forget that the power of the tools that we use to spy on our exes and post cutesy pictures of our children is so much bigger than we sometimes realize. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter can radically alter lives, bring people who would otherwise remain strangers together, and help make the world a more peaceful and cooperative place. Sounds hokey, but it's true.

Last night, I was reminded of the power of social networking. It wasn't as I tweeted out my dinner selection at a new culinary hotspot, hoping New York gourmands would add me to their follow list, or when I was kicking my sister's ass in a Facebook Scrabble game. It was when Lauren, a college friend of mine, sent along an email sharing news that her parents were stuck in Christchurch, New Zealand after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake rocked the city. Though New Zealand, located along major fault lines, has endured many tremors and quakes of higher magnitude in the past -- 7.1 on September 4th, for example -- fatalities were rare. This time, many were dead, and hundreds more were missing.

As I read Lauren's email, chills ran down my spine. Her mother was in a bathroom stall of a museum when the quake struck, separated from her father. Her parents couldn't get back into their hotel, the Heritage Christchurch, which had been evacuated and was closed until further notice. They wound up spending most of the day in a park with the many other victims of Mother Nature's wrath. Not only were Lauren's parents terrified in Christchurch, Lauren and her family were terrified at home in Washington D.C.

As news trickled back to the states, I visited the images of the disaster online. The spire of the city's cathedral had collapsed, the colorful buildings along Manchester Street were demolished, and glaciers had been crushed. I recalled my own time in Christchurch, a quaint Victorian city with trolley service running through its small university community, and was interrupted only when my email went off again. Another friend responded, "I honeymooned in New Zealand, the place I stayed was warm and accommodating. I can reach out to the proprietors and see if they can help your parents." This set off my light bulb.

A travel writer, I've amassed a network of friends around the world. At different points in my life and my travels they've been my guiding lights and my only saviors. Of course, the only thing to do was call the Smiths, a pretty amazing Kiwi family that represented the spirit of most New Zealanders -- kind, interested, friendly, and genuine. I had met Rob Smith, the eldest son, many years earlier in New York. Through Rob, I spent time with Hilary, the only daughter, in Dubai. The Smith parents hosted me in their home when was in New Zealand, taking me on road trips for proper fish and chips and a tour of the Coromandel beaches. The Smith family, on a global level, could be counted on.

I jumped on Facebook and shot off a message to Hilary, Rob, and Lauren explaining that Lauren's parents, like many others, were stranded and scared in Christchurch. Without belongings or a place to go, Lauren's father also needed his daily medication. Could the Smiths help? Within minutes, Hilary was on the scene from Dubai asking for Lauren's number. Minutes after that, Hilary and Lauren were in phone contact. Hilary advised it would be best for Lauren's parents to go south to Queenstown, and then they could figure out any next steps. Rob turned up next. He'd reached out to his father and mother. A list of New Zealand phone numbers followed -- home line, mobile line, work line. If Lauren's parents could get to the North Island from Queenstown, the Smiths would provide shelter.

When I checked my Facebook newsfeed, I saw that Hilary had posted a query to her page. "Does anyone know if the road from Christchurch to Queenstown is open?" A flurry of responses quickly posted in reply. "Yes, the road is open," said one. "My uncle made it through," said another. My text message went off. It was Lauren saying she had just "friended" Rob and Hilary, and she passed on all of their information to her parents. I sat with my laptop on my couch. My phone was at my side and my mouth was agape. Forget relationship status and pokes; I had just witnessed social media doing what it does best: connect and inform.