After Earthquake, Chilean Users Find Friends and Family on Facebook While World Shares Sympathies

An 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck a rural part of the South American country of Chile early Saturday morning, about 200 miles southwest of the capital city of Santiago. It killed more than 700 people, displaced two million and destroyed up to 80% of some of the towns in the coastal region nearest to the epicenter.

While Facebook helped play a big fundraising role for the far deadlier Haiti earthquake earlier this year, this time around it is playing a more social role — serving as a place for Chile’s millions of users to make contact with friends and relatives.

The country was notably one of the first countries outside the United States where Facebook became popular. It now has more than 6 million monthly active users, according to our latest Global Monitor report, or nearly 36% of the country’s 16.8 million people.

Over the weekend Facebook users around the world discussed the disaster, as well as the resulting tsunami (that ultimately did little damage), in purely informative or sympathetic terms. Status updates often mentioned news stories, prayers, 2012/the end of the world or Haiti.

Sunday, very few even mentioned text message aid campaigns. Monday morning mentions of text message aid campaigns were scarce although people did start asking what they could do to help, it appeared.

Despite the utility of text donations via mobile phones and charities after Haiti’s earthquake, the Chile earthquake has not generated nearly the same response, either on Facebook or Twitter. One reason, of course, is that the scope of the Haiti was far greater: up to 230,000 were killed, another 300,000 injured, and around 1 million made homeless. Another is that Haiti is much closer to the US, and many people with family in the country live here, including some celebrities; at least in terms of the American audience on Facebook, Chile’s connections are not as strong. The proximity of the two disasters — perhaps six weeks wasn’t enough time for people to move on from Haiti or because the poverty and desperation was so much worse there — but might also have to do with Wyclef Jean.

If you recall, Jean is a Haitian-born musician who used Twitter to diffuse his Yele Haiti message, sparking a campaign to donate $5 or $10 by text message. It that ultimately raised more than $40 million. Maybe it was Jean’s celebrity that helped spread the word, or maybe everyone is just now starting to catch up from the weekend, but it’s fairly obvious that the ubiquity of mobile giving for the Chile disaster compared to this same time frame for Haiti is lagging far behind.

Although the Support Earthquake Relief in Chile Page began to diffuse the mobile giving message Sunday, Habitat for Humanity’s began Saturday; so did Oxfam America, although only for online donations.

A search for “chile” on Facebook yields many results, but as previously mentioned, these are either informative or sympathetic and it’s rare to find a “text to donate” message. Besides this and the Disaster Relief Page, there are a few independent Chile Pages, a special Chile-related New York Times Page, some activity on Causes and a few charities updating progress.

Another difference between responses to the two earthquakes is perhaps due to the  millions of Facebook users in Chile — and the more than 2 million people affected. (Haiti has, from our understanding, a very small population of Facebook users.) Chileans are searching for their relatives on the Walls and discussion boards of these Pages. CNN Chile’s Page, with 34,000 fans, is not only informing Chileans about goings-on but directing them to the network’s web site to post messages about loved ones.

The Chile Earthquake Page started up Saturday shortly after the earthquake and grew from under 9,000 fans Sunday to almost 11,500 Monday morning. Page administrators boasted Monday morning that people have been located thanks to the activity there; two discussions on the Page seem to be helping users accomplish this, a discussion for loved ones in Concepción, Chile’s second-largest city and a place hit hard by the quake, as well as a discussion asking for names of missing Chileans, that’s generated 115 posts. This Page also included on-the-ground updates from someone named Jaime Urdangarin in Santiago, Chile, who reported that the phones Internet were down, except for mobile connections.

Google’s Person Finder: Chile Earthquake may be another reason the Page helped locate people; many Pages have included Google’s application on tabs on their Facebook pages. This may be a lesson learned from Haiti, as its implementation was rather speedy. Facebook’s Disaster Relief, with almost 377,000 fans, included the app as a link and a box on their Page, in addition to providing information about resources and charities.

Disaster Relief posted ways that Facebook was used after the earthquake: Hawaii Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka used his page to ask residents to stay calm and avoid coastal areas during the tsunami warning and the Chilean consulate in San Francisco used his page to reach his daughters in Chile.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Chile’s earthquake response on Facebook will differ from Haiti’s going forward, considering that people posting to Facebook know about the earthquake but are stuck on sympathy and have yet to push the mobile giving component — are there any differences, beyond the different scale of the two earthquakes. Regardless, this is another example of Facebook playing a role helping people connect on the ground in a disaster area.