www.useless.com: Crisis Communications on Shaky Ground


  • Kris Vavasour University of Cantebury




After the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck the city of Christchurch on February 22, 2011, the physical and communications infrastructure that many city dwellers rely on suddenly ceased to function. For many, this disruption to physical and virtual networks resulted in access to media, information, assistance and family being cut off or restricted in a number of different ways. Survey results show residents of the less-damaged suburbs made more use of television, websites and social media than those in badly damaged areas, who relied more on radio, word-of-mouth, and print material.

Social media and new technologies are now an established part of the crisis communications discourse; however, the infrastructure they rely on is not as solid and reliable as it may appear. After exploring the concept of blackboxing, the failures and weaknesses of previously backgrounded objects exposed by the earthquakes provide examples of its undoing (un-blackboxing). Quantitative and qualitative survey data is used to show how variations in location and disruption impacted on the information-seeking of residents, and how the un-blackboxing of infrastructure and socio-technical networks left residents out of the loop. This research also challenges perceptions of how widely used, accessible and/or useful technologies like Twitter are to those in the middle of a disaster.