Tsunami and Community
The first waves of the tsunami began to hit Japan's eastern coastal region approximately a half hour after the earthquake. Early estimates warned people to expect waves of 10 to 20 feet. Later measurements and reports saw waves of up to 124 feet. In some locations waves remained as high as 26 feet even a half-mile inland. An area of approximately 217 square miles was flooded.
Images and videos of the tsunami's devastating power and the destruction it left in its wake began to circulate. They would continue to circulate for days, shared on social media and dominating television coverage. Twitter served as an important hub for sharing links to visual media.
Today, the thick digital mantle of a natural disaster seems normal. In March of 2011 it was unprecedented. Twitter has been used to share emergency information as far back as the California wildfires of 2007, and was drawn on during the 2010 Haiti earthquake to coordinate relief efforts. But these were small in comparison with the digital recording, sharing, witnessing, and experiencing of 3.11, on Twitter and elsewhere.
Andrew Gordon, Director of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard, which designed and maintains the Digital Archive of Japan's 2011 Disasters, describes the resultant "blogs, tweets, audio recordings, non-governmental and relief organization communications, photographs, videos, news articles, disaster-related government websites, and other digital documentation" as a "global barrage."
In Japan, as disaster coverage continued to dominate television, concerns about the effects of this coverage on children led to the recording and sharing of special children's videos as well. These were often announced on Twitter.
Whether you understand phenomena like natural disaster–related Tweets as artifacts or traces, analogs or derivatives, representations or manifestations, the events of physical places took over the spaces of communication technologies.
Locating critical cries for help in this barrage was a challenge. Roughly an hour after the earthquake, with the devastation of the tsunami still ongoing, a Twitter user started the #j_j_helpme hashtag.
The j's here stand for Japan and jishin (earthquake). At this point, Twitter hashtags weren't enabled for kanji or kana, the main writing systems of Japanese. Thus, for link functionality to work, hashtags had to be in romaji (roman script). This is perhaps not as much of a barrier as the reverse would be for the average North American. Remember the 'w's for laughter in that early Tweet? One of the main systems for typing in Japanese uses romaji as its input script. Still, it is a barrier. Hashtags weren't in wide use.
The following day the Twitter Japan office published a blog post explaining how to use hashtags. The post highlights some already in circulation, like #j_j_helpme, and suggests additional ones. After listing 26 such hashtags, it offers a template for generating new hashtags organized by prefecture. Fourteen of the listed hashtags follow the model of #save_[prefecture name].
More than three years later, this list of hashtags seems optimistic in its specificity. It's hard to imagine users adopting such a lengthy system in a short timeframe. And yet, in the week following the disaster, many of the hashtags listed were used tens of thousands of times. Some, like #jishin, #j_j_helpme, and #anpi (safety), as well as #save_miyagi and #save_ibaraki (two of the affected prefectures) were used hundreds of thousands of times. A number of hashtags of solidarity were also used for international support, including #helpjapan and #hope4japan, often in combination with links to donation sites, such as that run by the American Red Cross.
Within Twitter, hashtags are a building material of place. They lay the foundation for what is simultaneously a channel that can be accessed and added to, and a curation of information and conversation.
At roughly the same time that @ntm_u_kyo was tweeting about #j_j_helpme, others started tweeting about the explosion of the Cosmo Oil refinery in Ichihara, Chiba.
Yet another extended disaster seemed to be unfolding. Several hours later, Twitter users began to circulate warnings of toxic rain in conjunction with the explosion.
However, by the subsequent day, bloggers and officials were taking to different forms of social media to debunk these rumors.
Similar rumor patterns, with swells and debunkings, were later seen on Twitter during the London Riots and Hurricane Sandy.
Social media rumors are a contemporary form of folklore. From traditional tales like why rabbit eyes are red, to superstitions about setting your keitai's wallpaper to a particular image for good luck, folklore has long been defined through multiple existence and variation. That is, to be considered folklore, something must exist in multiple locations and have distinct forms that are nonetheless recognizably the same. For many contemporary rumors, like these of toxic rain, multiple existence and variation occur in the assorted spaces of social media platforms.
So far, most studies of Twitter use in crises have focused on such large-scale dissemination patterns, whether of rumors like these or of confirmed facts. This focus tends to obscure smaller-scale, very personal interactions — interactions of intimacy, of connection and contact.
In a paper examining social media use and activism in Japan in conjunction with 3.11, social scientists David H. Slater, Keiko Nishimura, and Love Kindstrand suggest that an important use of Twitter during the crisis was to share emotional support.
The researchers highlight the use of textual versions of physical comfort, such as hugging (gyu gyu) and patting someone on the head (nade nade), suggesting that "For those who lived alone and spent that first anxious night tossing and turning in their beds — literally, given the force of the aftershocks — social media provided a community of similarly frightened people who cheered one another up."
Platforms like Twitter were places for people to express and experience closeness. Geographically they may have been far apart, but on Twitter they were very much together, enacting virtual gestures of physical comfort.