I suspect you always feel disconnected when tragedy strikes and you're far from home. Last Tuesday, I was working in Los Angeles for the week when I found out about the earthquake in Haiti -- via a text message.
My first phone call was to my dad in Miami. My entire life, my father has run a small nonprofit organization that partners with Haitians on education, nutrition and employment projects in several villages. I first visited the country when I was 12. Between college and graduate school, I taught at one of two American schools in Port-au-Prince.
That year, I lived with some close family friends -- the call to my dad was to find out if they were OK. He didn't know.
My next step was to check Facebook, where I saw friends in Haiti posting status messages. Inside my Facebook in-box, Els Vervloet, the alumni director for my old school, Quisqueya Christian, had sent our alumni/students/faculty group the first of what became a series of heart-wrenching messages that were, for the first 48 hours, my best source of information.
She described how teachers from my old school had run to the Caribbean Supermarket to start pulling people from the rubble. She talked about landmarks and neighborhoods that I knew and what she had seen and heard. And so many people started messaging her to help find friends and family that Facebook shut down her account because it suspected she was spamming people.
She posted a frantic message on her Facebook wall, where others also mentioned their accounts, or the ability to message people, had been temporarily disabled because of the high volume of activity. I contacted Facebook to find out what they were doing. (For the full post on that, click here.)
When I got in touch with them, a spokesman told me that in "rare cases,'' regular users can get caught in the site's automatic spam defense system. He suggested people in Haiti e-mail Facebook tech support and said they would screen messages to find people mentioning Haiti to expedite their cases. In the past, Bridget and I have described Facebook's user community evolving faster than the site -- this seems to be the most poignant example.
In the first few days, my feed was full of status updates like this one:
I spoke to one of the daughters of a family I know that lives in Haiti. She went to college in Indiana, got married and stayed in the United States. She's used to using social media to stay in touch with family in Haiti.
For her, and many others, Facebook was all she had. She, too, told me stories of how friends were rescued because of status updates that directed help their way.
I continue to see posts that are difficult and inspirational from friends in Haiti and colleagues reporting there for The Miami Herald.
Usually in this space, Bridget and I write about ways people use social media to connect, mostly for business. Last week, it was something so much more. Els, the alumni director, summed it up to me in a email she sent me this week: "Facebook Facebook has been my lifeline these past days!", she said, adding: "I never thought I would say this, but THANK GOD we have Facebook."