Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Social Media, Bird Strikes, and Aviation Safety Policy

The January 2009 ditching of the US Airways flight in the Hudson River in New York was an excellent example of how social media applications like Twitter and YouTube affect how the public finds out information about plane crashes and other aviation safety related events.

While the accident took place on the doorstep of the most important media center of the United States, many of the early images of the crash and the rescue that were distributed by major media outlets originated from witnesses. One of the most well known one was from a cell phone camera of Janis Krums, who was on one of the ferry boats involved in the recovery of the passengers. The picture was uploaded from an iPhone to TwitPic, a service that allows Twitter users to upload photos (see photo on TwitPic).

Twitter was not the only social media application working overtime that day. Video sharing sites like YouTube were flooded with many examples of user-generated content that collectively had hundreds of thousands of views within a day.

I'd certainly argue that if social media applications like Twitter didn't exist, a plane crash in New York would still get massive amounts of attention from major media. However, the "Miracle on the Hudson" was also an excellent example of how the average eyewitness can easily distribute images and other newsworthy information that could reach tens of thousands in a matter of minutes.

Until recently, one of the few options for publishing content online was through a web site. participated in the January 1999 launch of the Bird Strike Committee USA web site One of the stated purposes was to have the site act as a resource for the media and the general public, especially if there were a dramatic event such as a bird strike related crash. To serve that end, the site's content included extensive contact information for many of the key members of the Committee.

In the early years of the web, the key way that users would locate information was through a search engine. Because the site had been active for many years, and because the content included many of the popular search terms for bird strike issues, the site was often among the top results for many bird and wildlife strike related search terms. Because of this, major media organizations were able to find basic information about bird strikes and to contact many of the key Committee members, and as a result many of these members were able to provide insights and information to a broad audience in the hours after the crash.

It used to be that an organization was doing a good job getting its message out online if it had a solid web site and if content from that site was in the top results of relevant searches on Google or other search engines. This approach is no longer sufficient. It is necessary to go beyond web sites and search engines because an increasing number of online users are using technology to develop different kinds of ongoing relationship with other users, with information, and with organizations.

For an example of the differences, one just needs to look at the online realities of two New York area plane crashes, TWA Flight 800 and the recent Hudson River ditching involving US Airways. Flight 800 happened in July 1996, just two weeks after was launched. While there were search engines, Google did not yet exist. Major media web sites, were the most important sources of information for news about the crash. There was no YouTube, Twitter, Blogger, Facebook, Flickr, or any other easy to use social media related technologies for sharing photos, videos, and other information with large numbers of people. Email was certainly widely available, but it was mostly a way to communicate with individuals or small groups, not a way to communicate with thousands at a time. While I did my best to add independent information about the crash to, it had only a tiny impact. Traffic went from about 35 visits on the day before the event to about 700 visits the day of the crash.

In contrast, within minutes of the US Airways A320 ditching in the Hudson, there were thousands of people around the world who were contacting each other on Twitter, uploading videos to YouTube, and photos to Flickr. True, much of it was simply copied from traditional news organizations, but some of it was both original and unique. In many cases, traditional media relied on the public for information rather than the other way around. By the way, traffic on was a bit higher in 2009 than it was in 1996, with about 12,000 web site visits on the day of the event, plus at least 5,000 views or downloads of's initial podcast about the event.

The changing nature of the Internet, and the dramatic rise in the importance of newer social media applications, make it necessary for organizations like Bird Strike Committee USA to expand its relationship with the Internet. Fortunately for the Committee, there are many examples of social media use that can be followed, and most of them require no up front or ongoing costs. Perhaps the most pressing needs are in the following areas:

1. A review of existing web site policies and content to ensure that the site continues to rank well for key wildlife hazard related search terms.

2. Development of Bird Strike Committee USA policy for the use of evolving social media applications, in order to use those applications to better coordinate public education and public outreach efforts.

3. Encouraging the use of these same social media technologies among the organizations that support the work of the Committee.

While the early development of an informative web site was an innovation that put Bird Strike Committee USA well ahead of similarly structured aviation safety organizations, recent events have highlighted the fact that adopting at least some of the newer social media technologies is essential if Bird Strike Committee USA is to maintain its relatively high online profile.