Home in a few clicks: How social networks can help
MANILA, Philippines - In the 1900s it was a fantastical idea. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz returned home in a few clicks of her heels. Today that’s not such a stretch. With a few clicks online, a 52-year-old Brit was sent home just last week.
He wasn’t even the one doing the clicking. He didn’t log on to a travel site, didn’t post on Facebook or send a single tweet. Other people’s social networks, that he was completely unaware of, sent him exactly where he wanted to go.
After trying to check in for his flight and finding out his ticket had been cancelled, Gary Austin sat at Manila’s International Airport for more than 3 weeks. He suspected his former employer who had bought his ticket, had cancelled it. He said he had no money and nowhere else to go, so he spent most of the time playing a free Solitare game on an old beat-up phone. Not surprisingly, he got very good.
He didn’t realize it, but during that time he was also expanding his network. Short and thin, the former jockey was largely overlooked by formal authorities in one of the busiest airports in the world. But charming and funny, he made friends with the guards and a cadre of janitors. They took pity on him and shared their food with him during shifts. By his own admission these were people, he said, he would have never met otherwise.
It was through one of these janitors that I was able to track down Gary when he finally left the airport for two days to visit his embassy and stay in a motel. Gary had expanded his circle of acquaintances but he was still nowhere near connecting with the people who had the power to send him home.
He didn’t seem capable of consciously making those connections or formulating a plan. It took him 24 days just to visit the British embassy which, he said, could not buy him a ticket and would only offer him a free phone call and Internet access.
Parts of his story made me skeptical. He said the friends he was visiting in Cebu couldn’t help him because he had been giving them money. When I pressed him for more details about his friends, he mentioned a 30-year-old woman he had met online. I mentioned the woman in my video report and let those watching decide for themselves.
Still as I left him, I couldn’t help feeling depressed about his situation. He was a friendly guy stranded in a foreign country. He was desperate to go home and he didn’t seem any closer to getting there.
Little did I know, social networks were already invisibly at work. The news had found exactly the right person, blogger Cecile van Straten.
“On my blog, I've been campaigning for the renovation of NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport). People know how much I dread that airport, so every time a ceiling collapses or the aircon conks out — any kind of NAIA annoyance — it's tweeted to me,” she said.
The news about the airport literally finds Cecile. It is the kind of media we are used to today, media that comes to us. Her friend sent her the story.
Still she had absolutely no way to get Gary help since she had no direct connection to him. I had the information she needed, Gary’s phone number. Her social networks easily made the leap for her after she posted a blog saying she wanted to help the man trapped in Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Through the Twitter handle @carlaloo, Carla Arriola sent a tweet linking Cecil (@chuvaness) to Rappler's CEO (@maria_ressa) and our main social media account (@rapplerdotcom).
Our social media manager, Bea Cupin, sits a few desks away from me and our CEO, Maria Ressa, sits a few desks away from her. We have an open newsroom, so after a few excited shouts we had linked her to Gary.
After that we watched a happy ending unfold before our eyes. Cecile tweeted that she and her husband had called Gary.
A few hours later, they sent us a copy of his itinerary. After weeks of waiting, he had a ticket home the very same day Rappler published his story. Just like Dorothy, all it took was a few clicks to find the right person.
Cecile and Jeroen van Straten were the right people. She cared about airport problems and he cared about helping. He said other people had criticized him for buying Gary’s ticket but he stood by his decision. "People were saying it might be fake or fishy or something. But I think, if somebody is stuck in an airport, that's a bad situation no one would like to be in."
He asked me why doing something nice for someone else should be considered unusual or something to find fault with. "I think more people should find helping others normal, i think it should be part of your daily life thinking today I will help somebody," he said.
Jeroen is exactly the kind of person you hope your network connects you to. But he admits he is not Internet savvy, like his wife. He wouldn’t have known about Gary if not for her and of course, her network.
Gary had no idea, but a larger network that belonged to someone else had changed his course. That’s the thing about networks. A larger network is out there that might help you, even if you don’t know it’s there. We live in an age where it’s not just the news that can find us -- but help too.
Blissfully unaware of any larger network, Gary walked to his flight the next day. At his side was the janitress who had given me his number and helped him through the ordeal, Hannah Bulabon.
He didn’t see her as a node linking him to a larger network, she was just his friend. And that’s the point. In networks, just one friend can make all the difference. - Rappler.com