Let’s have better crisis conversations.

The last 30 hours have been unbelievable in Atlanta. After really cold temps with no snow, I think most of us southerners were excited about the promise of a little dusting yesterday. The flurries hit and Atlanta rejoiced and decided to head home to celebrate. Little did we know that many of our friends, neighbors, and coworkers would spend the night in a Publix or Home Depot, or in their cars on the interstate. Some lucky folks found places to sleep in the homes of strangers or distant Facebook friends. I was one of the really lucky ones – I was home from work yesterday with a sore throat and didn’t have to deal with any of the gridlock mess. But I did spend much of yesterday evening super worried about a handful of friends that were stuck out there somewhere. That helpless feeling is something most of us experienced in one way or another as the roads quickly turned to ice. The whole situation yesterday was a disaster. And yes, a lot of poor decision-making was to blame. And there are people in authority that should have to answer to crisis situations like this. But as the Twitterverse turned into a flurry of finger-pointing and angry accusations, it became easy to differentiate the helpful conversations from the ones that were just making things worse.

Situations like this present us with a decision about how we spend our time, emotion, and resources on the Internet. Last night, social media was put to amazing use to mobilize Atlanta to help our neighbors in need. Some people were doing incredible things like delivering babies on the side of I-285 and hiking around the city to help people get to shelter.  Others spent their time posting hateful things about our mayor and governor.

I’m all for questioning the system and trying to make things better. I just have a hard time believing that tweeting angry accusations at a politician is helping anything at all. In fact, I’m inclined to think it actually hurts us in the end. Here’s why:

  • If you’re busy airing your grievances with the government on social media, you’re probably not looking around you to see what you can do to make a difference in your immediate vicinity. This is true in and out of crisis.
  • Free speech is a great thing. But the way we talk about our leaders is pretty embarrassing at times. It’s unfortunate that the whole political system is a game played by people with big donation dollars and elections are often decided by voters that lack a real understanding of how the government works. But I don’t think that gives anyone a right to be hateful toward our elected officials, even when they screw up. What if instead of telling them how awful they are doing at their jobs, we actively sought more ways to get involved and support our leaders and the communities they serve? Maybe they’d be less scared of the backlash when they have to make a decision about how to spend taxpayers’ money when there may or may not be a snowstorm coming.
  • Placing the blame for any disaster like this on one individual or even group of individuals means we risk losing the big picture. The transportation issue in Atlanta is a really complex one that doesn’t have an easy solution. Sure, Atlanta was not prepared. Yeah, the government could have done a better job. Pre-treating the roads would have helped but it wouldn’t have solved everything. Let’s try to take a holistic approach at both understanding the issue and finding a solution.

Overall, I’m encouraged by the amazing stories of people being awesome to people around our city. I am energized by the way Atlanta used social media as a tool to help those in need, not just a soapbox. I hope we can continue to err on the side of compassion while being all the more dedicated to helping those in leadership make this city (and this country) a better place.

Sociologylindsay trinkle