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The Internet needs an emergency relief system

The Internet continues to find new and inspiring ways to assist victims of national tragedies. But there's potential for far greater contributions. 


Austin Powell

Internet Culture

Posted on May 22, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 3:17 pm CDT

The Internet has the transcendent ability to unite people in times of crisis.

After a massive tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore on Monday—claiming 24 lives and leaving behind a wind-torn path of rubble and ruin—individuals once more sprang into action from all corners of the Web.

Strangers helped return photos uncovered in the wake of the Oklahoma tornados via a Facebook group. Anonymous helped identify and assist victims through Twitter, while redditors offered up places to stay and sent plenty of pizza to patients and employees of area hospitals—an act that, after the Boston Marathon bombings, has almost become a standard response to tragedy from users of the social news site. And several fundraising initiatives cropped up on sites like GoFundMe and Give Forward.

Such efforts are sincerely appreciated and commendable—offering a silver lining of hope and redemption in the face of the unfathomable—but I can’t help but think that we can do far better.

With each passing national tragedy (and there have been far too many in recent memory), it seems like Internet-based relief efforts start back over from scratch. We Google and scour our news feeds, searching for some meaningful way to make an impact. Eventually, we settle on a particular idea or campaign, perhaps several of them, and either contribute to it or pass on the information in hopes that others will.

What often transpires is duct-taped ingenuity. We find creative ways to bend our social networks to our will.

For example, Brooklyn residents brilliantly co-opted Amazon’s Wedding Registry for a clothing and supplies drive for victims of Hurricane Sandy, while a Facebook group helped match displaced residents with Thanksgiving hosts. In Boston—and again in West, Texas—locals used a collaborative Google document to offer temporary shelter to those forced to evacuate.

Those are truly inspired—and inspiring—ideas, the kind that should be fostering a new crop of progressive startups and apps. Right now, we’re still stumbling backward through the Web, trying to piece it all together and figure something out as we go along. We’re relying on a bunch of good-hearted hacktivists to help track down our loved ones or praying that Google releases a local version of its Person Finder feature for each affected area.

The Internet needs an emergency relief system, some sort of established protocol that people can follow to find the help, tools, and assistance they need (or want to offer) online. We need trusted services that we don’t have to hack to turn into a charitable cause. 

Since most of the post-tragedy efforts seem to center around raising money—indeed, in West, volunteers had to actively advise against supply donations after becoming overwhelmed by water and clothing—maybe it makes the most sense to focus there.

Offline, the Red Cross has seen phenomenal success with text donations simply because the organization is established, trusted (perhaps too much so), and easy to contribute to. It’s literally as simple as pushing a few buttons. The Red Cross raised more than $32 million via text messages after the 2010 Haiti earthquake and, as the Daily Dot previously reported, over 50,000 tweets were sent this week containing “90999,” the number to text for $10 donations to Oklahoma relief efforts.

The problem with crowdfunding—the act of raising money online from various contributors to meet a common goal and the most obvious online counter to traditional charity drives—is that most people still aren’t familiar with the concept, much less the differences between sites like Indiegogo, Crowdtilt, and CitizInvestor, and which one is best in times of crisis. Of course, it doesn’t help that the most well-known crowdfunding site, Kickstarter, explicitly prohibits fundraising for charitable causes or any other campaign in which an actual product is not created.

Then there’s the problem of verification. While GoFundMe Vice President of Operations Greg Smith told the Daily Dot that the site uses Facebook “and a whole slew of other things” to verify campaign hosts, once the money is actually disbursed from a successful campaign, there’s often no real guarantee that it ends up where it’s supposed to.

Ironically, the ease with which people can create a new crowdfunding campaigns is compounding the issue. Oftentimes, multiple efforts spring up to address the same or similar issues, making it difficult for people to determine which one, if any, is the right choice for backing. That’s been the case thus far in Oklahoma, where of the seven campaigns the Dot found Tuesday, only one has raised more than $1,000.

All of which is not to suggest that crowdfunding isn’t part of the solution. Quite the contrary—it’s arguably the essential piece, but we need to improve verification and safeguards in place, as well as increase awareness about what works best when campaigning and why.

I don’t have the answer. But the Internet is at its finest when it rallies behind a cause and crowdsources the means and method to see it through. Together, we could find a way to improve our collective response time and make an even greater difference IRL. 

We need to get a place of shared trust and knowledge, to where we have at least a vague idea of the most efficient way of organizing netizens behind an idea. The impulse to like, share, and reblog is already there. Now we just need to make it work for us.

What if making a difference were as simple, universal, and immediate as sending a tweet?

Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III

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*First Published: May 22, 2013, 11:42 am CDT