There’s a tweeting emergency

If you join Twitter in response to a major emergency situation, you’re more likely to become a long-term adopter of the technology. Many early users shared nothing more than the minutiae of their everyday lives on the personal micro-blogging service. However, the Mumbai Taj Hotel terrorist attack, the Hudson River plane crash, California wildfires, Australian bushfires, during the hurricane season, the Tehran “elections”, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, even during “UKsnow” events, have witnessed the system evolve rapidly into an important information-sharing tool.

Social media of all flavors, whether mobile or web-based, is spreading rapidly as we all know. Even the most technophobic are beginning to see the benefits of being on Facebook, sharing snaps on Flickr, signing up with Twitter, and having a LinkedIn profile page.

Indeed, the age of the pure blog seems to be drawing to a close; for under-30s at least. What some once referred to as web 2.0 is maturing into a mélange of applications for sharing and communication between groups of people and beyond driven by the advent of APIs (application programming interfaces). And, the social media world is becoming the hub of search and share once the domain of email, instant messengers, and search engines.

Computer scientists Amanda Lee Hughes and Leysia Palen of the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA, have investigated how and why such technology is diffusing and how it is becoming increasingly important in emergency and mass convergence situations, such as disasters and in during times of political tension. While the technology may be spreading fast, it remains nothing more than a tool, underpinning its very existence is the necessity of human interaction.

Twitter is one particular component of the social media world that has risen to prominence. “With Twitter’s ability to send messages with mobile devices and easily broadcast those messages to a wide audience, it would seem to be a natural fit for use during mass convergence and crisis events (provided that the service is available),” the team says.

Their analysis of tweets during the hurricane season revealed some important points. Twitter messages sent during emergency and mass convergence events reveal features of information dissemination that support information broadcasting and brokerage, more URLs and fewer tweets about personal trivia.

The researchers add that, “An important lesson from this research is that emergency management could begin using Twitter and similar micro-blogging technology as a way of getting information to the public. We expect that this will further fuel personal technology adoption and set a precedent for future use in emergency warning, response and recovery situations.”

Research Blogging IconAmanda Lee Hughes, & Leysia Palen (2009). Twitter adoption and use in mass convergence and emergency events Int. J. Emergency Management, 6 (3/4), 248-260

Author: David Bradley

Freelance science journalist, author of Deceived Wisdom. Photographer and musician.