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Twitter and the Sichuan earthquake: proving its value?

Claudia Gabarain's picture

The Web is abuzz with the role of Twitter (which I wrote about last week) in spreading news about the China earthquake. A reminder and an update: Twitter is the site where users post messages of no more than 140 characters to say what they're doing at any certain moment. This is kind of... limited, and users of Twitter are coming up with other applications. But yesterday, the first news about the earthquake in Sichuan were made known to the world not through CNN or BBC, but through Twitter, when Robert Scoble started reporting accounts from residents in China just as the earthquake was happening. He was ahead of even the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) by three minutes.  Does this mean Twitter has "come of age" and proved itself to fill a niche that other media can't? There's *a lot* of people discussing this already (see some here, here, here and here, just to get started) and it's way too late in my part of the world to try to make much sense of it all, so here go a few random thoughts that came to mind while I was quickly catching up on this at the end of a mostly net-less day:

- Regarding old(er) vs new(er) media, I liked these two comments replying to two blog posts:

1.On newmediamarketing.entrepreneur.com: "Perhaps “New Media” should be renamed: “Fast Media” or “Instant Media” coverage compared to snail mail reporting, waiting for the “experts” to arrive and report." 

2. On the dot.life blog of the BBC: "I think that "who's first" is not exactly the point: "how fast, how many", and "how open" for the spontaneous collaboration is much more interesting".

 
Yes, speed and portability (you can read Twitter on your cell phone) are fine, but is this super-fast echo effect such a big deal? After all, it's not like the alternative is getting your news in a letter through snail mail: other web tools are really fast, too. And does a 3-minute delay make such a difference, in most situations? I find the second point on "how many, how open" more intriguing. And it inevitably leads to:

- How much more would we know about the post-cyclone situation in Myanmar today if its population had wide access to Twitter?

- And just how much do different countries use Twitter? See it here (just web traffic, it doesn't include SMS, IMs, or others), East Asia doesn't seem to be so well represented outside of Japan. (For Chinese "versions" of Twitter, our friends at Virtual China point to Jiwai.de and Fanfou --and, full disclosure: they are our friends because they recently wrote a very nice post about this blog).

- Right now, for quick news updates, Twitter looks like a fairly "grassroots", genuine source for the most part. But I'll take mine with a grain of salt, please. I keep on my skeptic hat and believe that, as it becomes more mainstream, the candidness and authenticity of individual reports will get mixed with marketing and interested one-sided accounts (we recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the first spam message, remember?).

- And again, after opening two dozen browser windows to catch up on the buzz today, I was soon silently begging for some help in figuring out what to read and what to skip: how do you filter who's a reliable source, or just who's simply mirroring what someone else already said? who has the time to wander around, reading dozens of blogs/twitter feeds to get an overall picture of the situation? I ended relying on BBC, Scoble, and the Online Journalism Blog among a few others. So by doing this, am I not making Scobler and other Twitterers more "mainstream" in a way, just like newspaper/news network editors earned that trust in the past from audiences of millions --but are now criticized for not being fast enough, or not including enough voices?

- Going back to development issues, I believe that for closed groups working coordinately on disaster relief, the benefits of using Twitter can be huge --like getting on a distribution list by phone, only easier and more practical. And I wonder if you know of any groups/teams who have used Twitter or a similar tool to communicate this way. Or --not being an expert myself-- if you can think of other, established ways of keeping in touch and coordinating efforts that could perhaps be improved by using Twitter instead.

Again, let us know.

(One last link, which I want to include although it didn't quite fit in my previous text: Summize is a search engine for Twitter content, so here you can follow a continuously updated stream of messages about "China +earthquake").