How Twitter Has Reshaped Emergency Responses

Nicholas Genes, MD, PhD


September 08, 2011

In This Article

History Repeating Itself?

It was a warm, late summer Tuesday in Manhattan. Suddenly I felt my chair begin to shake. As I stood up, the whole building seemed to sway. And instinctively... I checked my Twitter feed.

For many New Yorkers, those first moments of this summer's earthquake evoked some of the same emotions generated by the 9/11 terrorist attack. And yet I was struck by how much has changed over the past 10 years in how we process and respond to disasters.

It would be at least another 10 minutes or more before and other news sites changed their headlines to announce the East Coast earthquake that cracked the Washington Monument and was felt as far north as Maine. But on Twitter, coverage was nearly instantaneous.

Twitter is a social network uniquely suited to disseminating information via short messages ("tweets") that are sent, read, and shared by phone or computer throughout the world. With a keyword search, anyone can find all recent tweets on a given topic. The process of "retweeting" allows users to broadcast information beyond their own circles.

During the recent earthquake, those of us on Twitter quickly processed the jolt, reassured ourselves that we were safe, and began to share information (and jokes -- one early photo making the rounds, titled "DC earthquake devastation," featured a lawn chair that had tipped over). People in my circle retweeted messages from scholars with expertise on earthquakes, talking about the differences between East and West Coast earthquakes, the probable epicenter, and the low likelihood of significant aftershocks.

About 30 minutes later, as the news channels and their Websites began reporting on the quake details, I received the first of several emails from my hospital's disaster-preparedness group, which had been in touch with city agencies. Even though these official reports were based on privileged information, I already had a good idea what they would say, thanks to Twitter.

Clearly, many people are taking advantage of Twitter to get up-to-the-minute news and eyewitness perspectives. Usage during recent sporting events and award ceremonies has been measured in thousands of tweets per second . In fact, Web comic XKCD predicted that some people might read tweets about an earthquake before the seismic waves propagate to their location, and that phenomenon was captured in a video clip showing how tweets about the recent East Coast earthquake outran the quake itself.


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