Twittering your breakfast – and the earthquake in China

19 May, 2008 at 10:06 am 4 comments

Since setting up my Twitter account a month ago, I haven’t been bothered to update my status or follow other friends because I could do just that – and much more – on Facebook. I’ve struggled to think of how Twitter, a micro blogging service which provides bite-sized messages, could be useful to me or anyone else, beyond letting each other know what we had for breakfast.

Until now.

The blogosphere is currently abuzz with debate over whether micro blogging is an effective tool for providing and reporting the latest news. This follows proof that users on Twitter beat the news wires and journalists in reporting the earthquake that hit China on May 12 .

According to a timeline of tweets, the first message on the earthquake was posted by Twitter user scribeoflight at 2:35:33pm Beijing local time, and said simply: “earthquake. not sure how big. maybe four”.

The earthquake occurred at 2:28pm.

Minutes later, news agencies like Bloomberg News, Reuters and Dow Jones broke the story of the earthquake hitting Beijing, and later, Sichuan province.

In this blog post, Robert Scoble, famous for having 24000+ followers on Twitter and receiving a tweet every second of the day, says several Twitter users in China reported the quake to him while it was actually happening. He then used Twitter to provide news and updates about the quake to other users. Scoble also claims that Twitter had news of the earthquake even before the United States Geological Survey, which monitors seismic events.

Since then, users like inwalkedbud have been providing regular tweets on the earthquake and its effects, making Twitter one of the main sources of news on the quake. Users on Fanfou, Taotao and, Chinese social messaging services, are doing the same. Photos and videos of the quake and its devastation have also been posted on Flickr, YouTube, and Chinese video-sharing sites like Tudou and Youku, providing eye-witness accounts that mainstream media have struggled to get. Global Voices Online and the BBC provide a roundup of social media coverage of the quake.

Social media in emergencies

A recent study at the University of California claims that social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia are more effective than traditional media in providing information and warnings in an emergency/disaster situation.

During the Virginia Tech shootings in the US last April, the study found that emergency services and the media were slow in providing updates on the situation at the college and of the students who had been killed.

However, within 90 minutes of the shootings, a Wikipedia entry accurately describing the events had been posted and updated several times. Twenty minutes later, Facebook users had set up a group called “I’m OK at VT” for students and staff to reassure their friends and family that they were safe.

Researchers found that during the California fires last year, web users used Twitter to inform their friends of their condition, while traditional media struggled to provide updates on the fire. They also used Google Maps to track the fire’s route and indicate the areas where businesses and schools had been closed.

The study says the mass media were “unreliable” as they struggled to gain entry to remote areas from which users with Internet access could easily report.

It found that while traditional media focused on sensationalist news like the burning of celebrities’ homes, ordinary web users could provide important and accurate information as it unfolded.

Mainstream media

While the recent earthquake in China is enough proof for me that Twitter has greater utility beyond letting the world know what I had for breakfast, we should be careful about glorifying it as a rival news source.

Twitter and other social media tools may provide immediacy, global reach and first-hand information, but how accurate is it as a news source? Ofcourse, it’s hard to be wrong about an earthquake, but I wouldn’t write an article based solely on a tweet that says “Yay! Mugabe is dead” without verifying it first.

Nevertheless, it’s evident that the power and utility of social media has a huge impact on mainstream journalism. Unless journalists are arrogant and stupid enough to think that they’re the sole gatekeepers and producers of news, they need to join the online conversation.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how some South African news websites are doing just that, and how web 2.0 has changed conventional media-audience relationships.


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One flocking cool web browser What digital revolution?

4 Comments Add your own

  • […] Forest University Twittering your breakfast – and the earthquake in China » This Summary is from an article posted at Social Media on Monday, May 19, 2008 Since setting […]

  • 2. Inspector Gadget  |  20 May, 2008 at 11:35 am

    I can easily understand the popularity of sites like Twitter used as news bases. People, especially us young folk, want stuff fast and now! I have the same experience with my videos – the shorter (less than 1 minute) videos get about 3 times the views than the longer ones.

    There’s also always been a strange anti-mainstream-journalism vibe on the net. I feel it too. People will always strive to beat the ‘top’ news agencies in any way they can. Weird…

    Inspector Gadget

  • 3. bloggingsocialmedia  |  21 May, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    @ Inspector Gadget: I agree… it’s not just the immediacy of the Net that’s exciting; it’s also the fact that we no longer have to wait around for the mainstream media to let us know what’s going on.

  • […] devices such as Mxit and Meep, you can internet bank, you can blog, you can shop online, you can find out breaking news using news websites or social media sites like twitter, you can even take a guided tour of South Africa’s historical sites using your cell […]

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