Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Not All Who Go Missing Are Lost

I was home in Seattle for the last week. Eating breakfast, my mom handed me an article in the Seattle Times. It was titled “Social media's power: People around globe search for Stanford student

The first paragraph was as follows:
“It is every parent's nightmare: a normally reliable child sets off on a journey, then vanishes without a trace. But through the power of social media, a small army of thousands of volunteers produced a happy ending in the case of Jacob Boehm.”

From this, you’d think that, while he was traveling Malaysia, he’d been captured by a militia, gotten lost on a mountain climb, or kidnapped by organ harvesters, only to be rescued in the nick of time by Facebook. If you want to read the article without spoilers, do so now before reading the next line.

He wasn’t in any of those places. He was happily hiking through a Malaysian national park in a group with a professional guide. He just didn’t happen to have cell or internet service in the park.

So why did this make the newspapers, including the New York Times? The huge number of people who became worried enough to get involved looking for the poor guy. Thousands of people, alerted by Facebook, Google+, and other parts of the social media sphere went looking for him. The US Embassy got involved. The Malaysian government went looking for him. They saw he’d last checked in at a town near a national park. So they sent in the park rangers to find him, and voila, there he was.

The “rescued” backpacker’s only public comment? “It’s a long story.”

I can’t really blame him. He wasn’t lost. He just made a lot of people scared on accident. Whoops.

What’s really incredible is that there is now almost nowhere in the world where you can’t be found. Think about it, a 22 year old was just found in the jungles of Malaysia by government officials at the request of his parents on the other side of the world in the USA. That’s nuts.

So, three lessons to learn from this:

First and most importantly, for travelers: If you’re going off the grid for multiple days, alert someone back home. You don’t have to issue a plan, just give Mommy and Daddy a time frame after which they should start worrying.

Second for parents: If your child is traveling in the third world, remind him or her to let you know if they’re going off the grid. And if they don’t answer you phone calls or emails, it’s not because they’ve been kidnapped. The rest of the world is far safer than the news would have you believe. In many ways it is safer than the United States. So, I’m aware that you’d rather have your child safe and embarrassed than missing, but give it some time before you send out a red alert.

Third, for the media: Nobody is rescued unless someone is in actual danger. When you find a person and they were actually fine all along, don’t treat it as a heroic rescue. The story isn’t in that they found him, the story is in what happened when they tried to find him. And while yes that is mentioned in the last paragraph of your story, it should be right up there in the first.

image courtesy of Wikipedia