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Volcano 1, Internet 0.01

In a time of international crisis, the Internet failed almost utterly. At least in my limited experience.

Here are the things that I could not do over the Internet when, just as we were about to go through passport control for our trip to New York, the Barcelona Airport closed:

We could not find information about the closing posted on the Web when we needed it at the airport.

Email notifications from American Airlines about the flight delay and then cancellation came about an hour after the news was spread in the airport.

It was not possible rebook a flight using the American Airlines web site. That required a two-hour phone call to AA.

The Spanish train service’s site would not take orders for tickets. It contained no information about how to proceed, or about the multi-hour wait-times at the Barcelona station where tickets are sold.

There was no updated information about ticket availability for various trains. Nor was that information accessible at the train station except by waiting on a three hour line.

There was no obvious way to get information about the availability of rental cars, buses, cabs, or people willing to drive you to Madrid in their own car.

As far as I can tell, only three online services actually helped the stranded traveler: Twitter (see the #ashtag hashtag), Skype, and good old email.

This was not the Internet’s fault. It was moving bits faster than Icelandic volcanoes move ash. But the services built on the Net were tested by a non-lethal international crisis and crapped out. Oh, I’m sure there are cool and useful sites ‘n’ services, but I’m a fairly sophisticated Net user, and I didn’t find them, and what I did find seems not to have been built to work during times of crisis.

Makes you wonder about the implications for national security…

[THE NEXT DAY:] Given the level of Twitter activity, I’d probably upgrade the Internet to 0.2. Maybe even a tenth higher. It’s great to have a tool that’s being used bottom up for ad hoc (jeez, there’s a word I haven’t used in a while … it got eaten by “bottom up” and “grassroots”) group-forming and community support. Check the comments for some hashtags to follow.

But imagine an incident far more disruptive and deadly when we really needed to move masses of people quickly. The major transportation and travel institutions that would do the mass movement of people seem to be woefully unprepared and unable to scale up quickly. Twitter would help, but not being able to find out which buses and trains are running, etc., would magnify the disaster. We shouldn’t have to rely on Twitter for the sort of information that could come directly and immediately from the sources themselves. Not to mention that we need to be able to communicate with those sources directly so we can book travel. Twitter’s great, but having Twitter access is not the same thing as being prepared at a national level for crises.

38 Responses to “Volcano 1, Internet 0.01”

  1. Micah Sifry just tweeted that Twitter has been a lifeline for him, as it was for me, as he tries to get out of Berlin through Zurich and next, he hopes, through Rome. It wasn’t so much the internet as the people to whom the internet connected him and me.


    My saga; I was lucky to get out just ahead of the ash:
    I used the Google maps to get from Berlin to Munich just in time. I made a back-up reservation on my phone. I stayed sane thanks to Twitter’s tweeps. I got recommendations for my strategy. I got much.

    See also Heather Gold giving people recommendations for ride- and couch-finding services as she tries to get from Berlin to Finland.

    And there’s @calaisrescue, which organized a flotilla of boats to take people across the Channel until French officials stopped them.

    It’s not the internet’s fault. Airlines and governments and media can’t see their noses for the ash cloud. They’re not looking ahead and realizing there is a larger crisis they have to solve, not just report. But we, the people, are taking this into our own hands as best we can using the tool we have: the internet.

    What’s the latest for your trip? Can your friends on Twitter help?

  2. This is also helping.

  3. I was thinking yesterday, that if I were an airline, I would have deployed Twitter, Facebook etc. and a bank of social media-trained customer service reps. I would have had widgets and other “immediate” content on my webpages with up-to-the-minute information about airport closures, delays, and links.

    Would have fed that dynamic content to airline gates, ticketing agents, and other locations.

    The complaint seems to be a lack of information. It’s not that the information is lacking, it’s that companies such as airlines (and governments) haven’t learned how to disseminate the information they do have as nimbly as they could.

  4. […] that Twitter “has been an incredible lifeline these last few days”(David Weinberger was less impressed with the way the rest of the Internet handled the volcano […]

  5. Surely TEDxVolcano must count for at least another .01 points for the internet (though the volcano might get to count that .01 too…)

  6. The Internet can and did help some. I blogged here about how KLM gets it, Air France doesn’t.

  7. By Internet, you mean airline, right…? ;)

  8. Isn’t this another case of how some companies “get” customer service (regardless of channel) whilst others don’t / can’t.,

    I don’t think there’s anything new here and it certainly isn’t a failure of “the internet”. Rather it’s a failure of those companies to use the mechanisms at their disposal to appropriately communicate with their customers.

  9. A couple of weeks ago I was traveling through South East Asia and you could not buy tickets online for most airlines or hotels within 48hrs. Also, the only places you could buy airline tickets was showing up at the ticket counter between 8am and 8pm but then they closed so for 12hours out of the day, there was no buying or selling of tickets for any flights whatsoever.

  10. I would assume that the “service” of a company’s website correlates pretty much close to that company’s main service level. Those two cannot be far apart, same people, same culture etc. (I’m usually not surprised finding a useless website for a useless company whatever the situation is, stress just accentuates the issue).

    Have had some experience last couple of days: French railway system websites are same level as the service, rather spotty and hard to get anything out of when system is under stress. The Italian is basically “buy before you enter Italy” while the good old Swiss and German websites (and the Swiss SBB iPhone app) had not a glitch during the onslaught, just like their physical services, not a glitch, on-time as always, like a Swiss watch.

  11. I don’t get it, what does an airline sucking at updating information have to do with the internet?

  12. […] incredible lifeline these last few days”(David Weinberger was less impressed with the way the rest of the Internet handled the volcano […]

  13. Don’t worry, normal disaster capitalism will be resumed as soon as the military-industrial complex gets back to it’s HQ.

  14. […] more here: Joho the Blog » Volcano 1, Internet 0.01 Posted in blog | Tags: creative, creative-commons, david, david-weinberger, licensed-under, […]

  15. so far from true globalization yet

  16. Volcanos and #Collapsonomics…

    Sand Filters and Propellers – the answer to Volcano ash From David Weinberger: Here are the things that I could not do over the Internet when, just as we were about to go through passport control for our trip to New York, the Barcelona Airport close…

  17. As i said in my post, the Net as a bit transport worked fine. It’s the Net as social infrastructure that generally failed at the basics. I’m genuinely glad to hear about the p2p Twitter helpfulness, which my post underestimated.

    But imagine that this was a far more deadly and urgent situation, say, a dirty bomb or bio-terrorist attack, when moving large numbers of people is a matter of life and death. The industries we would need are not scaled up to deal with this sort of crisis.

  18. If you can get to Calais I understand there is a flotilla of private British boats ready to rescue those stranded on the continent. Sort of a Dunkirk thing.

  19. […] Joho the Blog » Volcano 1, Internet 0.01 […]

  20. […] Joho the Blog » Volcano 1, Internet 0.01 […]

  21. Stranded in istanbul, and the airport website seemed to be pretty up to date.

    Been crowdsourcing suggestions on what to do in Istanbul via :-) the Turkish users are full of great ideas!

  22. we jsut brought ourselves back from Barcelona and you should stop blaming ‘the Internet’ and blame badly designed backemds, poorly prepared travel companies with lousy customer service and news sites that dramatise the situation. eg get to Calais and you don’t need an amateur flotilla, you can just buy a walk-on ticket to the ferry. we saw the flotilla boys (one of whom is a son of a newsreader who’s presumably been telling the world it’s a catastrophe in Calais, they asked us if we had a ticket home and when we said yes they replied ‘shame’. Having driven for 13 hours and slept for about 6, that comment left us snarkily happy that they only picked up 25 people.

    there have been far too many people telling people things they don’t personally know (the ports are closed, there are no extra trains and other scare stories). there have been some terribly designed web sites with some backends that can’t cope with the amount of inquiries. leaving the booking to third parties only works when they’re good – Amex Travel did a great job for us finding rental cars and hotels, other travel agents were much less effective. There’s been far too much commentary about how the sky is falling and far too little practical information but that’s the fault of governments, scaremongering media and clueless travel companies – not the Internet itself.

  23. Excuses and more lame excuses. We don’t fly the weather is bad, we don’t fly it’s snowing, we don’t fly cuz we’re on strike etc., etc, bundled with the media to make everything look dramatic.

    It is another example of the incompetence of the airlines and officials to use alternatives to service their customers. They’re just a cartel good at only one thing. “Getting laid”. If they cannot do a job then better they put someone else to do it!.

  24. Tweeting the ‘new actions’ implies knowing what those actions will be in the first place. What will it take for (these) organizations to make their systems more agile and able to respond to rapid changes (good / bad, problematic / opportunistic, simple / complex)?

    Was there a system in place to deal with a crisis at this level in the first place? An organization can’t tweet about change if they don’t something (a plan?) in place to begin with. Hopefully this will be the teachable moment that motivates the stodgy (or naive) to change the way they operate – at a systems level and in the way they socially engage and inform.

    Two other things from your insightful post: 1) my brother is teaching journalists how to cover Homeland Security and other National issues at the Medill School of Journalism (shameless plug for my brother Josh). But this is exactly the sort of thing they need to be thinking about – gather, assess, inform … using ALL the tools that are out there. This piece just highlights how important it is to have the right systems in place. I look forward to sharing it with him – it is excellent food for thought.

    And last but not least, at least “we” haven’t lost our sense of humor. #ashtag Brilliant!

  25. […] Adres URL: Joho the Blog » Volcano 1, Internet 0.01 […]

  26. Hi All,

    This Volcano has caused so much trouble for everyone. I dont know if this helps, but you can send free SMS from my website (

    I hope it helps anyone stuck, no phone credit, no money.

    Kind Regards

    John Galvin

  27. […] Demanding “But imagine an incident far more disruptive and deadly when we really needed to move masses o… […]

  28. Contrast how JetBlue responded in a much much smaller crisis – the blizzard in the Northeast in late December ’09. I found out there was going to be a blizzard and that it might impact my flight BOS->ROC for my grandfather’s 90th birthday party the night before, while I was outside my house, headed to a party at a friend’s. I tweeted @jetblue, got info by DM conversation with a JetBlue employee to confirm that my flight would be canceled, that I could rebook for earlier for free, etc. By the time I arrived at my friend’s house (all of this was done while walking, on my phone using Tweetie) I was able to sit down at her netbook, change my flight without fee easily through a link on the JetBlue homepage for travelers affected by the blizzard, and go back to enjoying the party without much interruption. I left the party at 3 am and a few hours later was in the air.

    Small, yes, but this is how EVERY airline and transportation provider should treat any kind of cancellation-inducing crisis.

    PS – While I was Tweeting back & forth with @jetblue, I also had a phone call in to the JetBlue 800 number going on in the background. I got my info much faster via DM and hung up while my projected wait time to speak to an agent was still significant. I’m sure the whole interaction saved a ton of time on JetBlue’s side, too.

  29. […] les réseaux sociaux pour raconter leurs déboires. Bloqué en Espagne, David Weinberger a ainsi raconté  sur son blog tout son désarroi face à, selon lui, l’impossibilité du web à apporter des solutions […]

  30. […] titled his post “Volcano 1, Internet 0.01,” but the truth is that what failed this past week was not the Internet but corporate and […]

  31. […] going on: “In a time of international crisis, the Internet failed almost utterly…As far as I can tell, only three online services actually helped the stranded traveler: Twitter (see the #ashtag hashtag), Skype, and good old […]

  32. […] Volcano 1, Internet 0.01- Joho the Blog, April 18, 2010 […]

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