About six months ago, Karl woke up and realised that his 13 year old daughter Jessica had gone missing from their Taunton, Somerset home.
She had disappeared at some point between 2am and 6am. Karl was terrified, frightened, frantic and going through all the emotions that any parent would.
He immediately took to social media in order to plea for help, writing quite desperately and emotionally saying heart-in-mouth ‘Daddy loves you, please come home’ type message.
For the obvious legal reasons, I am holding back on saying names or talking about suspects, and have not included some of the details, should this eventually come to court.
For me, my awareness of Karl’s story first came when somebody shared onto my Google+ timeline his first plea (from his mobile phone). Within an hour of Karl making it, which included a picture of Jessica and the holidaying 19 year old boy they suspected she may have run away with, it had been reshared nearly 800 times and had attracted over 400 comments, most of which were from local people, some of whom knew the family.
He tweeted the picture and a much smaller worded plea via Twitter. This got re-tweeted over 2,500 times, consequently reaching a massive audience.
He put the plea out via his Facebook profile, but since his default was that only ‘friends’ could see his timeline, not the public, only 18 people ‘shared’ it, and about 10 commented. It got taken up by “Taunton Somerset” on Facebook, so was distributed to a lot more, but again, only those in this closed user group (of over 5,000) were aware of what was going on, not those from outside the area.
Facebook doesn’t function properly as a place to ‘view by search’, so the only way of knowing where the discussion was happening was to follow links back into Facebook published on Twitter or Google+. Without the links (most of which I’d lost by the time I wrote this up), the larger Facebook community, especially those from outside the area, was unaware what was happening, or unable to find out more about it.
The picture was also shared across BBM (Blackberry Messaging).
Now, speculation was that the 19 year old boy (who’d pretended he was 16, allegedly) was trying to take Jessica to London or Essex, where he hailed from. That was the thrust of the social media forwarding and sharing of the picture and the information. It needed to get to and alert people either in their intended destination or on the route to it, something which Facebook is not able to facilitate because of its design being biased around only a single set of ‘friends’ being able to share things. They needed to reach people who didn’t know anybody in Taunton, but lived in Essex/London and might know the boy or see the couple.
This is where Google+ and Twitter did work compared to the limitations of Facebook, and links were also shared to the missing persons website.
Since I spent a large amount of my life in East London, I got involved in targeted resharing, which is why this whole incident captured my attention.
Mainsteam regional media didn’t pick up on the story until a day or so later, and it was by then far too late to be of any use. And, as usual, most of its report was compiled by lazy journalists creating most of the story from what they’d read via social media.
On Google+ mainly, but also on Facebook‘s ‘Taunton Somerset’ (again, a timeline you just can’t find by searching for it), local people, including some who knew the family, added bits of information and sightings, as well as speculation from things they’d heard the couple say.
At one point as Karl was out driving about searching, he saw his daughter and the 19 year-old in a field. By the time he managed to get into the field they had gone. He put this on Google+ and Twitter asking for help, causing a flood of locals to join him, co-ordinating through, yep, social media.
Other locals started mentioning separate sightings via Google+. Helicopters and over 100 police descended on the area, eventually focussing on a caravan park.
A couple of young shop assistants having seen the picture (I think via BBM) and read the pleas on their phones recognised the couple and also mentioned this online as well as contacting the police.
The police closed in and recovered Jessica and a few moments later arrested the 19 year old boy.
All of this was spoken of ‘live’ and as it was happening by different people (who were out looking for her) as they were witnessing it. Photos were distributed of the massive police presence, again via Google+, Facebook and Twitter. One even described how they could now see the 19 year old arrested and in the back of a police car.
The confirmation that Jessica had been found was made by an overjoyed Karl who thanked everybody and then disappeared offline to spend time with his daughter and sort out their issues, the ones that had probably contributed to her decision to ‘run away’ with the 19 year old boy.
Now, I’m sure there are better examples of social media being used in order to very quickly push out information and ask for help and to rally people, but this has got to be one of the best. It is a fact that had it not been for the use of social media and how social media people collaborate with each other, that she would not have been found so easily and relatively unharmed (She only had a few cuts and bruises and was in need of a good bath and change of clothes). Who knows what might have happened instead.
It also shows how the extended ability we now have to instantly share information and contribute to a common bucket of ‘live knowledge’ is taking communication to the next level. There’s an awful lot wrong with this as anybody watching the Jeremy Kyle Show can witness, but there are times when it truly saves lives and is an integral part of reality for the much greater good.