Review by Sheri McClure-Baker, University of San Francisco

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Social Media in Disaster Response: How Experience Architechs can Build for Participation

Liza Potts
Florence, Kentucky: Routledge, 2014. 146. Nonfiction.


Cover of Social Media in Disaster Response: How Experience Architechs can Build for Participation

Liza Potts’ book Social Media in Disaster Response is a much-needed call to action for both experience architects and humanists to engage more fully in social media and do so in a more socially responsible way. Using Actor Network Theory (ANT), Potts argues that increased participation in and awareness of current social media trends will allow experience architects the ability to respond in beneficial ways when disaster strikes and those in need turn to the Internet for aid. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 explore specific disasters and the success of subsequent online interactions when viewed through the four stages of translation within ANT: problematization, interessement, enrollment, and mobilization (pp. 28-29). Bookended by theory and action steps, these chapters establish the need for future progress in how the Internet responds when disasters occur, and who should initiate the response.

Participation is the essence of this argument. In Chapter 1, humanists are called to join current experience architects in their exploration of the Internet and its interconnectedness. Potts argues that intimate knowledge of current and emerging social media outlets will allow better architecting for stronger connections, which would form the web necessary for successful disaster aid relief. As designers engage in these sites, they better understand the potential for additional usability, but they also come to see current users as invested participants who shape the direction of the sites. “Blurring the lines between designer and participant, producer and audience, and writer and reader should be seen as opportunities to create technologies and policies that empower this level of engagement on all sides” (p. 7). When designers remain detached from users and from engaging from the interfaces themselves, they miss opportunities to better architect for the kind of participation that can aid in successful disaster response.

The first two chapters present an amalgam of technical and user-centered design theories to lay the necessary groundwork to motivate this change. While tedious at times, the concepts presented in Chapter 2 establish a working vocabulary for new conversations about architecting for disaster response. While Potts begins with more general language for examining social media response patterns through a shift from data to information to knowledge, concepts more relevant to her analysis emerge through her discussion of ANT. Actors themselves are described as “people, organizations, events, and technologies (e.g., devices, websites, software) [that]… come together as part of a network to accomplish certain tasks” (p. 26). The networks created by these actors allow potentially vital information to pass successfully in times of crisis. Participating in these networks would allow experience architects the ability to structure and navigate them in more beneficial ways.

The four stages of translation later become central to Potts’ assessment of several recent disaster response attempts. The first, problematization, occurs when people initially respond to an event. Individuals called anchor actors begin to emerge in order to take central roles in the process. They are “central to the network, and volunteer to serve as obligatory passage points for content and collection, validation, and distribution” (p. 28). If problematization is successful, interessement occurs. This is when stabilization of the network begins, the anchor actors become commonly accepted, and information becomes more centralized. This is the beginning of what is called a fire space, and it continues to develop in the third step: enrollment. In enrollment, anchor actors are fully accepted and followed, which leads to further stabilization. Finally, mobilization may occur. This involves a successful sharing of information and support across the network. In order to design for transition through all four stages, Potts suggests creating ANT maps to “capture the people, technologies, organizations, events, and other relevant actors” (p. 31) within a given network. These diagrams help architects visualize connections between important actors in order to make informed decisions regarding future directions for design and policy creation.

The next three chapters explore three different disasters and the degree of success each received via online support. In Chapter 3, Potts argues that a lack of interconnectivity prevented victims and their families from successfully accessing official sites or repurposing Craigslist as a site for missing and found people during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The next disaster discussed, the London Bombings in July 2005, progressed further through translation. Developing networks within Twitter, Flikr, and mobile blogs halted with some degree of success in interessement by allowing participants to create a fire space that never fully moved into mobilization. Potts urges architects to “examine how participants evaluate data, navigate poorly designed systems, and connect with one another through these networks” (p. 60) to prevent this type of interrupted growth. In Chapter 4, Potts argues that it was an inability to validate information that prevented the vital transition to the final step of fully mobilizing information during the bombings. But it is not until Potts examines the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 in Chapter 5 that she is able to present a clear example of mobilization, the final of the four stages of translation. During these tragic attacks, participants rallied around emerging anchor actors and were able to use Twitter, Google Docs, and mobile blogs to confirm information. Potts argues that it was the successful interconnections between these sites and the malleability of the sites that allowed for this to occur.

These examples do much to underscore Potts’ assertion that humanists and experience architects need to participate in social media systems, not to anticipate new ways of using the sites, but to be prepared to engage with users as they modify and reimagine functions as they are needed in times of disaster. However, the final chapter does little more than reassert the claims established in the first five chapters. While participation, increased interconnectivity, and using ANT as a lens for future changes are all valuable and consistent with the preceding argument, the reader may expect more from an ending chapter entitled “Architecting systems for participation.” While Potts is certainly not expected to solve the problems that have only recently come to light in this new area in technical communication, a thorough restatement of previous claims does lend to an anticlimactic finish to an otherwise thought provoking book.

Despite minor shortcomings in the final chapter, Potts has authored an important and meaningful contribution to what promises to be a compelling new area of study. Humanists, technical communicators, and experience architects have the opportunity to take the mantle of responsibility by becoming even more actively engaged in new and emerging social media technologies in order to better understand how they work together to form a true network of information. As Potts so accurately notes, these systems are constantly emerging, disappearing, and being reconfigured by those who use them. Ever in flux, it is crucial that technical experts engage consistently in social media sites in order to understand how they can be utilized most successfully when disaster occurs.



Sheri McClure-Baker (MA, California State University, Fresno) is a doctoral student in the Technical Communication and Rhetoric program at Texas Tech University. Her research interests involve feminist issues within medical rhetoric, including how Computer Mediated Systems fragment the body and contribute to reduced empathy in patient care. She is currently an Instructor at the University of San Francisco.


© Sheri McClure-Baker, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 5 (2015)