Building online communities after crises: Two case studies

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Building community in a crisis situation offers individuals a chance to not just survive, but potentially thrive through a disaster. Communities offer a unique benefit in a crisis by expanding beyond the geographic to include virtual spaces, particularly when other media are not available for survivors. This project applies theoretical frameworks from both complexity theory and the community of practice model to explore how individuals form online communities after crises, how those communities impact crisis recovery, and how the model can be used to understand communities' crisis communication.

This project used a qualitative case study method, including content analysis of two communities that formed online after two crises, and interviews with nine members, including the founder, of one of the communities. The first case is the Jersey Shore Hurricane News Facebook page, formed during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The second case looks at a hashtag-based (#batman and #shooting) community on Twitter after the shooting at a Colorado movie theater in July 2012.

The results show that instead of a typical one-to-many communication model and organizational focus, utilizing a community of practice allows for both a one-to-one model and a consequent focus on affected individuals. The community of practice model accommodates findings which suggest that location is important in building community, a need for adapting information needs to the community, and the acceptance of multiple relationship types. A new, alternate final dimension of communities of practice, continuation, is suggested and exemplified.

This project argues for developing these online communities prior to a crisis. There are also specific suggestions for tools within technology that would be most useful to crisis-based communities of practice, and both benefits and drawbacks to the platforms studied. Practically, social media platform designers need to spend time thinking through how people connect during a crisis, and to make it easier for them to get the information they need quickly. In showcasing how to integrate social media, crisis communication, and a community-based model, this dissertation offers theoretical and practical suggestions for altering and improving current understandings of the best way to aid individual crisis response and recovery.