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Tuesday, July 12 • 14:46 - 16:35
Digital humanitarians: creating and connecting ‘online crisis communities’ in the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster.

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Location: PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - LG01, 
Goldsmiths, University of London, Building 2
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  • Femke Mulder, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Julie Ferguson, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands

Citizen and volunteer networks play an important role in the aftermath of humanitarian crises, particularly in the Global South where formal authorities are not always able to provide an adequate response. Volunteer-driven action groups increasingly use social media-based platforms to enable stakeholders to access, share and broadcast crisis- relevant information. Such platforms are often mobilized by dispersed, relatively well- educated, digitally-literate citizens in an attempt to influence and monitor ongoing relief efforts and raise awareness of the plight of affected communities (Roberts, 2011). These ‘digital humanitarians’ (Meier, 2015) are members of the global digital elite who dedicate themselves to humanitarian causes and seek to champion the interests and needs of local citizens affected by disaster. To date, little research has been carried out into the role of these ‘digital elites’ in shaping crisis communities, to what extent they represent the needs of affected local citizens, and whether/how they succeed in communicating – and transferring - these needs to other networks, particularly networks of formal humanitarian responders (Boersma et al., 2014). 


This study compares social-media enabled crisis communications in the aftermath of the Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015) earthquakes, toward two complementary goals. First, we explore how digital elites attempt to ‘program’ a social network (Castells, 2009: 45), that is, how they attempt to create online crisis communities with shared identities, shared goals and shared tasks - out of stakeholders with heterogeneous interests and agendas. An important focus here are the in- and exclusions of the voices of different groups of affected citizens on the ground. Second, we analyse how digital elites use social media in an attempt to get government bodies or humanitarian agencies to adopt the goals and tasks of ‘their’ online crisis community. That is, we examine how objectives are ‘switched’ from one social network to another (ibid.) In so doing, we explain how digital elites use social media in their (potential) role as social network ‘programmers’ and ‘switchers’. 


We analyze the online crisis communities using a mixed-methods research design, combining ethnographic methods (Hine, 2008; Tony, 1979) with social network and semantic content analyses (Williams and Shepherd, 2015) of social media data. We contextualize our findings using the historical method. 


Our research to date indicates that in both Haiti and Nepal digital elites played a leading role in ‘programming’ and attempts at ‘switching’, with elites in the latter facilitating more ‘bottom-up’ involvement.

Future Work

We carried out fieldwork in Nepal in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes and will follow this up with additional fieldwork in March 2016. Furthermore, we will analyse a dataset of online communications between ‘digital humanitarians’ (Meier, 2015) who volunteered their skills and time to create interactive online maps, in an attempt to channel the needs and problems of local affected citizens. 


Boersma, K., Ferguson, J., Groenewegen, P., and Wolbers, J. (2014) Beyond the Myth of Control: Toward Network Switching in Disaster Management. In: Proceedings of the 11th International ISCRAM Conference (pp. 125-130).

Castells M. (2009). Communication Power. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. Hine, C. (2008). Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Varieties, Affordances. The SAGE Handbook

of Online Research Methods, 257-270. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Meier, P. (2015). Digital humanitarians. How Big Data Is Changing the Face of

Humanitarian Response. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Roberts, N.C. (2011). Beyond Smokestacks and Silos: Open-Source, Web-Enabled Coordination in Organizations and Networks, Public Administration Review, 71(5): 677- 693.

Tony, W. I. (1979). Anthropology and Disaster Research. Disasters, 3(1): 43–52.

Williams, T. A., and Shepherd, D. A. (2015). Mixed Method Social Network Analysis: Combining Inductive Concept Development, Content Analysis, and Secondary Data for Quantitative Analysis. Organizational Research Methods (online in advance): 1-31. DOI: 10.1177/1094428115610807 


Tuesday July 12, 2016 14:46 - 16:35 UTC
PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - LG01 Goldsmiths University, Building 2

Attendees (5)