As soon as I heard about the earthquake in Japan, my heart fell. Understanding the catastrophic enormity of the situation, I anxiously fired up my laptop -- sweaty palms and all -- to Facebook and tweeted my friends to see if they were safe.
Specifically, I wanted to hear back from a good friend I have known through the Asian American Journalists Association and ABC News, Akiko Fujita, who lives and covers the news from Tokyo. I have not heard back from her, but was relieved to know she is OK, thanks to her social media community.
Images from the tragedy of Japan's one-two punch from last week's earthquake and tsunami continue to flood the multimedia landscape: Facebook, Twitter, blogs and news outlets consume our attention. Today's technology is changing the way we learn news.
With the click of a mouse, virtual birds-eye views like these show the unfiltered enormity of the devastation. According to Japanese officials and news outlets, a tide of more than 2,000 bodies washed ashore in Miyagi, the region closest to the epicenter. Tens of thousands more are missing or feared dead.
Yuko Abe, 54, of Rikuzentakata, a northern town that now is almost totally flattened, writes in tears from an evacuation center. "I am looking for my parents and my older brother," Abe said. "Seeing the way the area is, I thought that perhaps they did not make it. I also cannot tell my siblings that live away that I am safe, as mobile phones and telephones are not working."
John McLaughlan, a teacher in Sendai, wrote that his whole kindergarten class is missing. "I just hope they were evacuated," he said.
Then there are the stories of hope. After being swept away atop his roof, Hiromitsu Shinkawa, 60, was spotted by a rescue ship, thanks to the red flag he made. Shinkawa saw the tsunami coming and ran home to gather his belongings. In a flash, his home was decimated. He was swept out to sea on what used to be the roof of his house. "No helicopters or boats that came nearby noticed me. I thought that day was going to be the last day of my life," Shinkawa said. Before being rescued onto the ship, he drank a glass of water and then broke into tears. Shinkawa's wife is still missing.
We absorb the constant multimedia images of destruction and devastation, voyeuristically hooked by the horror.
As I blog from the comfort of my San Francisco apartment, I wonder what would we do if a tragedy of this magnitude shook our reality? Who would I call? How would I reach my friends and family?
Every victim has a story -- people desperately waiting to hear from their loved ones, the people stuck beneath the rubble, those like Shinkawa, who were swept away by the tsunami, and, of course, the thousands of others who weren't so lucky to escape death.
In a weird way, I found solace in the abundance of Facebook and Twitter messages. Messages like this tweet from @TimeOutTokyo: "If you're feeling utterly useless (we know the feeling) here's a list of ways you can help http://bit.ly/gX5pdU #helpJapan"
I thought what can I do to help?
Ironically, the answer is right in front of me. I had an epiphany -- use my website as a platform to inspire people to help. GoInspireGo.com, my nonprofit (a video-based website that inspires people to "Discover and use their power to help others") harnesses social media to inspire social change.
Here are some suggestions on easy ways to help... and, in numbers we can make a difference:
a) Log in to Facebook or Twitter
b) Pledge an amount for every update (You can cap the total amount)
c) At the end of the month, your credit card gets charged based on your updates
2.) Through Groupon, the website that sends you daily deals, now allows you to donate. You can easily donate $5, $10 or $25 for the International Medical Corps., a humanitarian aid group that helps with Japan's earthquake relief efforts. So far, they've raised more than $16,000. The daily coupon site Living Social is also offering a similar donation program.
3.) Social Gaming: FarmVille fans, listen up, you too can help children who are victims of the quake just by doing what you love -- playing the game. Zynga, the company that created this popular Facebook game announced that it is teaming up with Save the Children to support earthquake and tsunami relief efforts. Users can donate in eight of the company's most popular games just by playing FarmVille, YoVille, Zynga Poker, Words With Friends, Cafe World, CityVille, FrontierVille and zBar.
4.) SXSW4Japan: Organizers of the tech world's annual social media spectacular, the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, are doing what they know best to raise money for Japan -- using social media. The event director tweeted that some social media marvels launched a website to raise money for victims in Japan. So far, more than $36,000 has been raised. And if you feel inspired to create your own campaign, the site also includes helpful tips for launching your own fundraising page.
5.) Text: This is the easiest way to help out, quickly, and without a lot of fuss. The Mobile Giving Foundation launched an effort late last week, empowering people to give by using their cell phones to donate $5 or $10. Here are just a few options:
a) The Red Cross has its own mobile giving program, in which supporters can text "REDCROSS" to 90999 to donate $10.
b) Text "JAPAN" or "TSUNAM" to 20222 to donate $10 on behalf of Save the Children Federation, Inc.
c) Text "4JAPAN"or "4TSUNAMI" to 20222 to donate $10 on behalf of World Vision, Inc.
d) Text "MERCY" to 25283 to donate $10 on behalf of Mercy Corps.
e) If you want to support The Salvation Army USA, you can text "JAPAN" to 80888 to make a $10 donation to the organization.
You can do something to make a difference. It's in your hands. You have the power.
Prayers to our brothers and sisters in Japan.
Follow Toan Lam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GoInspireGo