One More Way Social Media Can Lead You Astray
A funny thing happened on the way to this column: Hurricane Irma.
I’d checked in with Therese weeks ago and let her know that Jane Friedman (AKA “Porter’s Brain”) and I would like to alert you today to our annual flash sale on The Hot Sheet, our subscription newsletter for traditionally publishing and self-publishing authors. We offer 30 percent off each year on our anniversary, and today we’re at the second-year mark with our bi-weekly email analysis of the industry! the industry! expressly for authors. Code 2YR will get you the discounted rate, and we’d love to have you. There’s a 30-day free trial.
Jane has a quick summation of some of the types of news we’re handling in a handy post you can read at her site. The spot to subscribe is here. And our “No Drama, No Hype” slogan is something I’m almost as proud of as I am of our analysis.
But while getting ready to write about all this for Unboxed, I was almost Undone, of course, by the arrival in Florida of Irma.
I’ve never liked the name, have you?
In the course of my very long waltz with the National Hurricane Center in the past week, I’ve learned something about news and how we share it with each other in our business–and how we react to it. I’ve realized I’d like to bring this to you today.
First I’ll give you a mercifully brief account of my path through this thing, so you’ll know how I came to these lessons learned.
By the time Hurricane Irma had flattened the Caribbean islands, we in Tampa were aware that a couple of particularly bad scenarios were possible for the Gulf coast. The predicted “right-hand turn” occurred, the Keys were chewed up, and the storm started its siege of the peninsula, making Naples one of its showpieces of storm surge. The storm at some points stretched 650 miles from east to west.
Deep into Sunday night, the phenomenon observed at Tampa was as predicted. The waters of Tampa Bay and Old Hillsborough Bay were sucked out, creating eerie plough-mud flats where vast bodies of water are supposed to be. This is the pattern that we know precedes the surge’s inundation of a coastal plain when the counter-clockwise rotation of a hurricane’s energy shoves the Gulf of Mexico down our throats. Surge predictions ran between 3 and 8 feet (and atop a high tide). Anderson Cooper and his crew from CNN were in position across from the University of Tampa, ready to narrate our demise in a hit likely between Categories 1 and 2.
The storm, however, made a last-minute feint to the east, moving across the state to Orlando, Daytona, Jacksonville and up the lower East Coast, turning back inland as a tropical storm.
Zone A had been ordered to evacuate. I’d reserved a hotel room in Atlanta well in advance just in case. On Friday, a week ago today, September 9, as the evacuation orders went out, I put the beagle into the car and started driving north to Georgia along with thousands of others. Hotel rooms were booked out well beyond Alabama. Four lanes, a long bumper-to-bumper column, streamed up I-75. Many gas stations had no fuel. Speeds ranged from 6 to 70 miles per hour. We were allowed to use the left shoulder as a lane, but the state declined to permit “contraflow”–opening the southerly lanes for northward escapees–because military convoys and long lines of power-company trucks needed to roll south into position in Florida. The 7.5-hour drive to Atlanta took 16.5 hours.
By Monday, Atlanta was getting Tropical Storm Irma. Trees were falling onto the highways and power lines. The hotel and millions of other utility customers lost power. The beagle and I started “de-vacuation,” driving back to Tampa and an unknown situation there. This time the trip took 14.5 hours. The beagle was no help at the wheel.
I’m one of the lucky ones. My part of the city took minimal damage, lots of debris, broken trees, standing water, limited power outages. Others weren’t so lucky. As recently as yesterday, Thursday, the Red Cross was still serving hot meals to those who needed them at three points in Tampa. Businesses are re-opening now. The state, as a whole, is staggered. Don Trump has now inspected Florida’s misery and seems satisfied.
Provocation: Patience When It’s Hard
What I learned in this ridiculously exhausting, nerve-wracking disruption was that as literary colleagues, we’re sometimes not as kind as we think. That’s my gentle provocation for you today.
Social media makes it much too easy to pepper people you may not know well with good wishes, questions, demands for updates. Curiosity is natural. The long reach of the Internet is not. And while I hope not to seem ungrateful here for genuine concern in certain places, I’ve ended up with a short list of points about supporting each other during tough times.
We’re people of the word, after all. And the allure of that glowy device is so hard to resist (just ask Don). We want to issue our best phrases of loving concern, to feel that we’ve touched someone with our genius for bucking up the soul. I’ve done this, myself, to people. Now I know I wasn’t helping. So don’t feel badly if you’ve done it, too. It’s just too damned easy for us to forget that a crisis is, actually, a crisis, and the hands on the other end may be needed on the wheel, the storm shutter, the beagle, or the aching head more than on texts and tweets back to you to assure you that all is okay (or not).
- If you’re a genuine friend or family member, these rules don’t apply, of course. You’ll be in touch as you need to be with your person in the storm.
- But if you’re a colleague, a co-worker, an acquaintance, it actually is counter-productive for you to start messaging that person-in-the-storm with questions about how high is the water and how low are his spirits. Whether running for it or “sheltering in place,” that person needs to focus on the mess at hand.
- So unless you’re in the first classification of a close one, give that person in trouble–of whatever kind–the space he or she needs to handle the emergency. Power may well be in short supply. Messages from acquaintances aren’t a good use of what little battery may be left.
- If you’re able to make a directly helping move, tell, don’t ask: “Hey. I’m finishing that edit for you, forget about it for now, focus there. No answer needed. Stay safe.” You’ll get gratitude later.
- If you’re not sure whether you’re needed: sit tight. Your person will contact you. They know you’re there. Hold your fire.
- Don’t be clueless. People who asked “Is something going on in Florida?” deserve a sago palm in their kitchen.
- Don’t minimize the situation. “Well, nothing happened in your town!” is totally unhelpful. Your person has gone through something, even if ending up lucky. Next time I may hire a copter to airlift me off the roof, just so I can keep people from acting as if we didn’t perform what some reports say was the largest evacuation in American history. Nowhere in the Southeast got a pass from this thing.
- And don’t joke. Like our emergency services, the various news media (that was not hype), especially my CNN colleagues, did an extremely good job of putting across what was going on, but they couldn’t tell you the individual struggles underway in the wind and rain and surges. Our death toll in Florida alone is has passed 40, in the Caribbean, 44. Think before you sass.
Especially in the kind of extended “family” of writers in which so many of us are lucky to live today, it’s easy, I learned, for folks to overreach. And again, I’ve done it, myself. It may be harder for authors and other writers–because we are all about expression–to remember that there are times to stop expressing.
What’s been your experience of this? Have you found yourself having to act like a one-person news medium to a host of distant contacts during an emergency or tough experience? Any tips on letting folks know without honking them off that they need to stand down for a while?
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