Making the world kinder, one "digital hug" at a time

If you've ever looked around an airport or restaurant you've probably noticed people absorbed in their mobile devices -- isolated from one another by technology while using devices to reach out via email, text and social networks. It's a bit of contradiction, right? Even when technology isolates us from physical interaction, people use it for the emotional connections they crave.

If you've never thought about technology this way, you're not alone. I hadn't until I saw what happens online during emergencies, when people who are physically isolated by the circumstance of an event yearn to know they're not alone.

Tornadoes may give us the best example of this. If you live in tornado country, take a look at Twitter the next time the sirens go off in your area. Chances are, you will see a lot of people saying "I'm scared" or "I don't know what to do." At the Red Cross, that's our cue to let them know they're not alone, their feelings are normal and give them a simple action to take. We call it a "digital hug." A couple of years ago, our social engagement team had a Twitter conversation with a frightened teenage babysitter in Maryland during a tornado outbreak there. Our team offered kind words and some very basic advice about what to do. They helped keep her calm and directed her to a safe place in the house.

We haven't measured exactly how many of these conversations we've had over the past two years, but it's safe to say that it happens weekly and, sometimes, daily. It happens frequently enough that I believe the social space may offer a more viable venue for emotional support activities than many people realize.

This reinforces why digital volunteers are so important. While many organizations use digital disaster volunteers for important work like crisis mapping or for mining situational awareness, Red Cross volunteers look for people suffering and offer care and empathy in 140 characters. It's not always a conversation as lengthy as the one with the babysitter. It's often the simple gesture of saying "hey, someone cares" that offers comfort and builds trust within social networks. It's also why we infuse all of our digital volunteer training with the basics of psychological first aid and why our Disaster Mental Health group has been vital to the success of our digital volunteer program.

While we train digital volunteers, ultimately what we do isn't very complex. We help people feel more connected when something scary is happening. We offer some basic human kindness. It's actually a small step anyone can take by letting just one person in your social network know you care. By doing just that and being your own digital volunteer, the internet will be much better place.

If you're interested in supporting social engagement activities in your area, please contact your local chapter to learn more.

Cisco partners with American Red Cross to respond to disasters with employee giving campaigns and volunteers who provide food, water, shelter, and relief services to people affected by natural disasters. For more information about about Cisco's focus area of critical human needs and disaster relief, please visit: http://csr.cisco.com/pages/critical-human-needs