UBC researcher shows how social media avails self-organization in times of chaos

On May 12, 2008, students at China’s University of Chengdu were struck by an 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province.

The aftershocks of the earthquake impaired the ability of the university’s administrators to carry out necessary crisis management duties in order to protect students. In the absence of this top-down guidance, the University’s students enacted their very own crisis response activities.

Assistant professor Ning Nan of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business has made understanding how social media enables this type of collective effort, or “self-organization,” a focus of her research.

Some posts on the University of Chengdu's online discussion forum after the 2008 earthquake | Photo courtesy of the University of British Columbia

Some posts on the University of Chengdu’s online discussion forum after the 2008 earthquake | Photo courtesy of the University of British Columbia

Social media allows self-organization

Nan discovered how social media enabled the students to self-organize while she was investigating the university’s online student discussion forum. She specifically said that social media was a “fundamental” tool which enables large-scale self-organization. Furthermore, she explains how the students took advantage of social media to aid their cause in the aftermath of the earthquake.

“They first submitted ideas for disaster relief activities to the online forum. Then, by ‘Ding’ their favorite ideas (similar to “Like” on Facebook), they converged on a few most feasible ideas. They then coordinated the execution of the chosen ideas via the online forum,” says Nan.

Nan suggests that findings like this suggest that future crisis management research should pay more attention to the impact of social media.

“Crisis management literature should pay more attention to information and communication technology,” says Nan.

Despite this recent finding, Nan emphasized that the top-down approach to crisis management is still important.

“The traditional top-down approach is still relevant. The top-down approach helps to ensure efficiency and rationality of crisis management,” says Nan.

But Nan explains that self-organization offers a powerful addition to top-down crisis management.

“It can now be enhanced by self-organization. Self-organization complements the traditional approach by bringing in the wisdom of crowds,” says Nan.

Self-organization as a fact of life

Nan explains that self-organization is a biological behavior that is not exclusive to humans.

“Organisms are wired to self-organize. In other words, self-organization is always going on in biological and social systems. Bird flocks are an example of self-organization,” says Nan.

Chaotic or catastrophic events can vary between protests and disorder within a society, to natural disasters such as typhoons, tsunamis or earthquakes. According to Nan, the occurrence of self-organization becomes more likely during such difficult times.

“A crisis situation makes self-organization more salient than in a tranquil period,” says Nan.

Many recent examples indicate the role social media can play in enabling people to self-organize during times of chaos and disorder. In early 2011, popular discontent with the decades-long government of Hosni Mubarak caused massive protests to erupt in Egypt. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were fundamental tools that enabled a diverse citizenry to form a cohesive unit and, ultimately, topple Mubarak’s regime, according to a 2011 article by E.B. Boyd. Later in the same year, social media also played a role in organizing the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City.

Nan stresses the importance of continuing research on self-organization as a complement to the traditional top-down approach to crisis management situations.

“[Crisis management] should also include ordinary organizational members and the general public as a source of intelligence and order in crisis situations,” says Nan.