Twitter Twuniverse Worth Twying

Tracey Barnett ©March 2010

A Twitter prayer in 140 characters: O Lord, smite those that post morning bowel movements or what yr dog 8 for breakfast on worldwide social media. Even yr Mum doesn’t care. Edit or throw self under train.

That’s why I hadn’t touched the Twitter account I signed up for months ago. Facebook was already a time-sucker, I figured. It had put me in touch with enough childhood friends to strangle a cat and that was plenty.

Sure, I knew that Iran’s Green Revolution was carried to the world on Twitter, out maneuvering government censors last year. But on a personal level, I felt Twitter’s built-in inanity was well worth ignoring—that is, until I did a story recently on Google in China.

Twitter worked immediately when I needed to contact a Chinese blogger. Yet when I posted questions to him via email, they somehow disappeared—twice. I’ll never know for sure if they got sucked into the Great Firewall of China, but the links on his Twitter site and others provided by the Asia New Zealand Foundation were invaluable. People involved in the issue acted as intelligent instant aggregators, showing me the best threads of discussion on the subject in bite-sized one-line intros, with links to the full articles.

These tools don’t have to be about dissecting sweater lint with friends. Sites like Twitter can work for you as a customized information antenna, only with bigger brains and a planet-sized outreach that can travel infinitely beyond your circle of colleagues or friends.

The real value for me is who you can “follow”. In just a few minutes, I can now quickly trawl through the tweets of two-dozen publications or journalists who interest me and click on the link to one of their recommended articles. It’s like a modern day ticker tape—a shorthand, real-time news feed that I can self-design.

Let’s jump forward to this past Tsunami Sunday. The greatest disaster I experienced was missing the bacon sammies being grilled in a farmer’s paddock after the fistful of families I was camping with in Tawharanui were evacuated to higher ground.

It certainly didn’t feel that way for Sheryl Breuker who had a sister-in-law in Santiago, Chile. She was desperate to know if she was safe. With phone lines down in many areas, Breuker’s attempts to call, text or email went nowhere.

What did she do? She tried Twitter. Because tweets are so short, at roughly a sentence long, they take up little bandwidth and often have a better chance of getting through in an emergency when everyone floods cell phone networks.

She used the subject tags that are prefaced with a hash, like #chile#quake, to find locals near her sister-in-law to ask for help. People responded, mostly by retweeting, spreading the message wider and wider from one circle of friends to another.

Breuker wrote on her blog, “The power of the retweet is something we take for granted. A man we didn’t know in any way sent a simple tweet that he was in Chile and asked how he could help. We scrambled to give him every bit of useful information that we could come up with. He messaged several times that phones were out and he couldn’t get through. Then, amazingly he said ‘as soon as I get a chance I will go to the address you gave me.’ Through Twitter, we made contact with someone in another continent, but close enough to go physically check on our family.”

Within two hours of first contact with this man, she got a message that said, ‘I found her! She is OK…she told me to tell Twinkie to stay cool, she is fine!”

Just two short weeks ago, the NZ Ministry of Civil Defence opened a Twitter account [@NZcivildefence] linked to their website. They saw their usual website hits go from 350 a day to 44,000 on Sunday. Spokesman Vince Cholewa said, “The idea of the retweet is the electronic version of going and talking to Mum. That spreading of the message—retweeting it to other people—is actually doing a huge service.” Cholewa recommends using as many media as you can in a crisis, from text messaging and RSS feeds to door knocking.

Forget your old ideas of social media as a time waster or just another marketing outlet. Look where collective creativity has already taken this one platform alone. A journalism student tweeted one word, “ARRESTED” after photographing an anti-Egyptian government protest. Within hours his message circulated and found its way to his embassy and the Associated Press. He was released the next day.

Ferries are beginning to tweet their arrivals. Sickcity tracks Twitter references to illness to watch for potential epidemics in cities. Some techies have found a way to link a Twitter alert to burglar sensors in their home.

Even the Dalai Lama opened a Twitter account last month. Wonder what his dog had for breakfast.

I’m on Twitter @TraceyBarnett

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