Twitterquake: Sitting with TechMeme during earthquake

Last night I was hanging out with a small group of people when Shel Israel told us “there was just an earthquake.” His wife had called him and he happened to pick up the phone. I instantly looked at my phone and saw Maryam had already called me. Turned out that 80% of the people at the table had the same experience — that a wife or significant other had called them and checked in.

But what was fascinating was what happened next: we all went to Twitter where the earthquake was causing its own “Twitterquake.” Damn, were the posts flowing fast. What a lot of people on Twitter realized was there was MUCH BETTER information flowing through Twitter than on any other media. Quickly we realized no one was hurt, no real damage had been done, so we went back to our dinner.

In San Francisco most of us at the dinner didn’t feel it. I immediately left a TwitterGram, so that everyone would hear our voice and understand that nothing happened where we were.

But the more interesting thing was that I was standing next to Gabe Rivera, the founder of TechMeme/Memeorandum, as this was all going down. He predicted, accurately, that the earthquake wouldn’t make it onto TechMeme. He told us that the only way it’d show up is if it started affecting something in technology. He did keep nervously look at his cell phone to make sure that TechMeme wasn’t displaying anything about it.

We did talk at the table, though, that how we get news has dramatically changed. First of all, the word-of-mouth network was the fastest out there. Loved ones are going to probably tell you news like this before anyone else. Twitter is damn fast, too. Beats the USGS Web site with data. And that’s saying something because the USGS sites report quakes within minutes.

Lots of chatter on Twitter discussed that Google News, CNN, and other mainstream outlets weren’t reporting the news. The local newspaper wrote a story, but this demonstrated how inadequate local journalism is: Twitter had far more information than this story had and had it FAR faster and thanks to things like Twitter, Flickr, Kyte.tv, Seesmic, Twittergram, and Utterz, we can cover the story with micromedia in a way that the San jose Mercury News simply hasn’t gotten a clue about.

Well, that’s the Twitterquake wrap up. Anything from your point of view that we should discuss regarding the changes in how we get our news?

Oh, during the quake we didn’t lose power, didn’t lose cell phones, and didn’t lose access to Twitter. During a really big quake there will be lots of infrastructure down, but SOMEONE will be able to get messages out and that’ll really be interesting to watch how information gets shared if, say, all of San Francisco isn’t able to communicate with the Internet.

UPDATE: Mike Doeff was tracking Twitter for every mention of the Quake. Wow, thanks for doing that!

71 thoughts on “Twitterquake: Sitting with TechMeme during earthquake

  1. Robert – I get completely all the things that CAN be done (the sandwich comment was just being a little facetious). The issue I have is that it’s the difference between a platform versus a solution.

    And when it comes to emergency situations, considering our government has a lot of trouble just getting WATER to people who need it, I don’t think a situation in which people calling 911 saying they read something on someone’s Twitter is really going to result in the help we need when we need it…

  2. Robert – I get completely all the things that CAN be done (the sandwich comment was just being a little facetious). The issue I have is that it’s the difference between a platform versus a solution.

    And when it comes to emergency situations, considering our government has a lot of trouble just getting WATER to people who need it, I don’t think a situation in which people calling 911 saying they read something on someone’s Twitter is really going to result in the help we need when we need it…

  3. First of all, the word-of-mouth network was the fastest out there. Loved ones are going to probably tell you news like this before anyone else. Twitter is damn fast, too. Beats the USGS Web site with data. And that’s saying something because the USGS sites report quakes within minutes.

    Well, for me, I was actually 3.9 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake when it happened. And how did I know that I was this close? Not because of twitter. But because of the USGS web page. I was able to pinpoint the epicenter as well as the magnitude much faster than any twitter friends could have told me.

    USGS still provided much higher quality, factual reporting data than Twitter. Than even someone who felt the earthquake. Even when the person who felt the earthquake was me!

  4. First of all, the word-of-mouth network was the fastest out there. Loved ones are going to probably tell you news like this before anyone else. Twitter is damn fast, too. Beats the USGS Web site with data. And that’s saying something because the USGS sites report quakes within minutes.

    Well, for me, I was actually 3.9 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake when it happened. And how did I know that I was this close? Not because of twitter. But because of the USGS web page. I was able to pinpoint the epicenter as well as the magnitude much faster than any twitter friends could have told me.

    USGS still provided much higher quality, factual reporting data than Twitter. Than even someone who felt the earthquake. Even when the person who felt the earthquake was me!

  5. JT: during Katrina and 9/11 voice capabilities didn’t work. Even last night Maryam said she couldn’t make calls to anyone in the 408 area codes. But Twitter stayed up. SMS stayed up in Katrina and mostly up in 9/11.

  6. JT: during Katrina and 9/11 voice capabilities didn’t work. Even last night Maryam said she couldn’t make calls to anyone in the 408 area codes. But Twitter stayed up. SMS stayed up in Katrina and mostly up in 9/11.

  7. JT: I really thought you were more informed about how Twitter works than that. Did you see what Mike did? Sifting through all the “what do you have for lunch” stuff is VERY EASY and can be done WITHIN MINUTES.

    We don’t need to get government agencies onto Twitter (although did you know that the Los Angeles Fire Department is already on Twitter?) After all, everyone is praising the ham radio folks. How many governmental officials have ham radio licenses? I can tell you: almost none. But they know that someone will show up with a truck with all the gear and will help them out. If I have information about people stuck in a remote location and I’m near a government building (as I was last night) you betcha I’ll be in their face until they take care of it.

    You really need to sit down with me and get over your misunderstandings of Twitter to see how it works and how it can be used.

    Speaking of which, I owe you a dinner. Will contact you today. Or you can call me on my cell at 425-205-1921.

  8. JT: I really thought you were more informed about how Twitter works than that. Did you see what Mike did? Sifting through all the “what do you have for lunch” stuff is VERY EASY and can be done WITHIN MINUTES.

    We don’t need to get government agencies onto Twitter (although did you know that the Los Angeles Fire Department is already on Twitter?) After all, everyone is praising the ham radio folks. How many governmental officials have ham radio licenses? I can tell you: almost none. But they know that someone will show up with a truck with all the gear and will help them out. If I have information about people stuck in a remote location and I’m near a government building (as I was last night) you betcha I’ll be in their face until they take care of it.

    You really need to sit down with me and get over your misunderstandings of Twitter to see how it works and how it can be used.

    Speaking of which, I owe you a dinner. Will contact you today. Or you can call me on my cell at 425-205-1921.

  9. ps – I just registered twittermergency.com – any smart engineers out there want to work with me on a not-for-profit system? I admit that I’ve been fairly anti-Twitter, but if there’s actually a way to do some good with it, I’d like to help make it happen.

  10. ps – I just registered twittermergency.com – any smart engineers out there want to work with me on a not-for-profit system? I admit that I’ve been fairly anti-Twitter, but if there’s actually a way to do some good with it, I’d like to help make it happen.

  11. Robert – actually, those examples all require a huge amount of service/government groups to adopt Twitter AND to do so in a way that is useful (ignoring all the non-emergency traffic).

    SMS is clearly a technology that would be useful in an emergency.

    Twitter COULD certainly help, and maybe if someone built the “Twittermergency” system, that’d be swell. But right now, if I were trapped under a bus and had access to my cell phone, I’d start with making a phone call…

    As long as people have to sift between “having a sandwich at Panera” and “help help I’m stuck under a bus”, the system just isn’t going to help save lives.

  12. Robert – actually, those examples all require a huge amount of service/government groups to adopt Twitter AND to do so in a way that is useful (ignoring all the non-emergency traffic).

    SMS is clearly a technology that would be useful in an emergency.

    Twitter COULD certainly help, and maybe if someone built the “Twittermergency” system, that’d be swell. But right now, if I were trapped under a bus and had access to my cell phone, I’d start with making a phone call…

    As long as people have to sift between “having a sandwich at Panera” and “help help I’m stuck under a bus”, the system just isn’t going to help save lives.

  13. This is exactly what we experienced during the fires last week in San Diego. The “local” news was actually not nearly specific enough to get a read on the fire lines, proximity to neighborhoods and general risk. Twitter was by far the most up to date feed…

  14. This is exactly what we experienced during the fires last week in San Diego. The “local” news was actually not nearly specific enough to get a read on the fire lines, proximity to neighborhoods and general risk. Twitter was by far the most up to date feed…

  15. Jonathan: good point. Human beings are very resourceful about rebuilding communication networks when shit goes down. I saw that last night. Even in our small group we were already forming new information networks and if the disaster had been bigger we would have figured out how to get information both in and out.

  16. Jonathan: good point. Human beings are very resourceful about rebuilding communication networks when shit goes down. I saw that last night. Even in our small group we were already forming new information networks and if the disaster had been bigger we would have figured out how to get information both in and out.

  17. How can Twitter help save lives?

    Well, there are a few ways to look at this:

    1. If you’re caught in a building or under a bridge or something that fell down. There you’re pretty much screwed unless a rescue dog team finds you. Here time is of the essence. Twitter can help focus resources to the worst-hit places. Resources are dogs (which are how most of the victims are found — they were used during our last quake and also during 9/11). If a dog team hears of a building that fell down that’s outside their search area thanks to Twitter, or the Internet, that will save lives very directly. Right now this kind of information sharing is done with ham radio crews. They aren’t perfect and there aren’t enough of them. In the last quake victims were stuck in Santa Cruz mountains for days because the media and the ham trucks couldn’t get up to the worst-hit areas.

    2. If you live in a place that needs resources. I live in Half Moon Bay. If there really were a major earthquake we’d be cut off from the rest of the world. We’ll need food, water, doctors, and other resources flown in. We’ll be the hardest to reach via Twitter, actually, because of our location. Not sure Twitter will help, although if the Internet stays up it’ll prove valuable to getting information out which will help government officials elsewhere deploy resources for maximum good. That might save lives.

    3. If evacuations are needed. This is where the Internet will help get the best information out and will help people save time/money and possibly resources. If you need to get out of San Francisco due to a major chemical spill do you know how to get out? Can you compare information with other people who are ahead of you and figure out the best possible route? Here Twitter could save a lot of lives. If I were caught in a chemical cloud I would definitely Twitter what’s happening. I might be dead within minutes, but that information could warn other people not to come this way (say I’m on the Bay Bridge — my warnings could get you to save time and move toward the Golden Gate Bridge instead.

    And this is just off the top of my head.

  18. How can Twitter help save lives?

    Well, there are a few ways to look at this:

    1. If you’re caught in a building or under a bridge or something that fell down. There you’re pretty much screwed unless a rescue dog team finds you. Here time is of the essence. Twitter can help focus resources to the worst-hit places. Resources are dogs (which are how most of the victims are found — they were used during our last quake and also during 9/11). If a dog team hears of a building that fell down that’s outside their search area thanks to Twitter, or the Internet, that will save lives very directly. Right now this kind of information sharing is done with ham radio crews. They aren’t perfect and there aren’t enough of them. In the last quake victims were stuck in Santa Cruz mountains for days because the media and the ham trucks couldn’t get up to the worst-hit areas.

    2. If you live in a place that needs resources. I live in Half Moon Bay. If there really were a major earthquake we’d be cut off from the rest of the world. We’ll need food, water, doctors, and other resources flown in. We’ll be the hardest to reach via Twitter, actually, because of our location. Not sure Twitter will help, although if the Internet stays up it’ll prove valuable to getting information out which will help government officials elsewhere deploy resources for maximum good. That might save lives.

    3. If evacuations are needed. This is where the Internet will help get the best information out and will help people save time/money and possibly resources. If you need to get out of San Francisco due to a major chemical spill do you know how to get out? Can you compare information with other people who are ahead of you and figure out the best possible route? Here Twitter could save a lot of lives. If I were caught in a chemical cloud I would definitely Twitter what’s happening. I might be dead within minutes, but that information could warn other people not to come this way (say I’m on the Bay Bridge — my warnings could get you to save time and move toward the Golden Gate Bridge instead.

    And this is just off the top of my head.

  19. The USGS had the location and magnitude posted on their Website within minutes.

    As of this writing, they have had over sixty thousand people post their experience of the earthquake. The summary statistics can be found here.

  20. The USGS had the location and magnitude posted on their Website within minutes.

    As of this writing, they have had over sixty thousand people post their experience of the earthquake. The summary statistics can be found here.

  21. mal, Ham radio stations most likely could. A good chunk of the operators are really into different kinds of wifi, particularly the long distance contest type. We’re radio nerds, really. In the event of an emergency that zaps area power, if you find a live wi-fi node, chances are it’s being maintained by a ham. (There’s an annual dry run for these kinds of events called Field Day.)

    Hams do have an integrated gps + radio frequency packet email system called APRS. You can pull data into several different kinds of mapping programs, etc. Most basic internet technologies were in use by hams during the 80′s – packet radio based email, bbs, (analog) slow jpeg downloads. There really ought to be a way to better integrate ham radio and Twitter – I’ll have to look at that.

    Robert’s right about the limitations of usefulness: if you don’t know someone with a ham license, you can’t get your message out. Now that playing with radios isn’t very cool anymore (compared to the internet) the hobby is shrinking. In the event of an emergency, do check with your local red cross aid checkpoint or hospital: you’ll almost always find a ham station setup providing alternate communication links.

    It’s not that hard to become a ham: to transmit on one of the assigned frequencies, you need a license. Which requires answering a 30 question multiple choice test correctly, and yes, you can read all the questions in the question pool at your leisure.

  22. mal, Ham radio stations most likely could. A good chunk of the operators are really into different kinds of wifi, particularly the long distance contest type. We’re radio nerds, really. In the event of an emergency that zaps area power, if you find a live wi-fi node, chances are it’s being maintained by a ham. (There’s an annual dry run for these kinds of events called Field Day.)

    Hams do have an integrated gps + radio frequency packet email system called APRS. You can pull data into several different kinds of mapping programs, etc. Most basic internet technologies were in use by hams during the 80′s – packet radio based email, bbs, (analog) slow jpeg downloads. There really ought to be a way to better integrate ham radio and Twitter – I’ll have to look at that.

    Robert’s right about the limitations of usefulness: if you don’t know someone with a ham license, you can’t get your message out. Now that playing with radios isn’t very cool anymore (compared to the internet) the hobby is shrinking. In the event of an emergency, do check with your local red cross aid checkpoint or hospital: you’ll almost always find a ham station setup providing alternate communication links.

    It’s not that hard to become a ham: to transmit on one of the assigned frequencies, you need a license. Which requires answering a 30 question multiple choice test correctly, and yes, you can read all the questions in the question pool at your leisure.

  23. I just still don’t understand why this is BETTER. I am in NYC right now, I got a text message from my wife which said “small quake, went to get Sam [[my baby]]. got scared for a sec”. I proceeded to call her and she said all was well.

    Other than helping out the curious and rubbernecking effect, how does having people Twitter about an earthquake help anyone else? Let’s pretend it was a serious one. What is using Twitter going to do to help SAVE LIVES?

    I admit, its great to follow from a distance. I’m sure if I used it and a quake happened it would be useful for my not-so-close friends to know what is going on. Anyone close to me is getting a text message…

  24. I just still don’t understand why this is BETTER. I am in NYC right now, I got a text message from my wife which said “small quake, went to get Sam [[my baby]]. got scared for a sec”. I proceeded to call her and she said all was well.

    Other than helping out the curious and rubbernecking effect, how does having people Twitter about an earthquake help anyone else? Let’s pretend it was a serious one. What is using Twitter going to do to help SAVE LIVES?

    I admit, its great to follow from a distance. I’m sure if I used it and a quake happened it would be useful for my not-so-close friends to know what is going on. Anyone close to me is getting a text message…

  25. My little handheld ham radio, a Kenwood TH-D7, has the full ability to send digital text messages, including GPS data along with the message.

    I never actually thought of setting it up, but it would be a very simple task to post a Twitter message using a radio and now that the thought comes up, I might just see about turning that feature on.

    I currently already use my radio when flying (I’m a private pilot) to gather airport weather data. I just send a properly formed text message and a few seconds later the textual weather data for any airport is texted right back to my radio :-)

    And it doesn’t take much at all to send that text message straight up to a satellite if you’re worried about power outage and loss of local infrastructure.

    Ham radio is not dead, it’s quite popular and growing now that the morse code requirements are completely gone for the Technician class license.

    If you’d like more information contact me, http://ki6esh.com or visit the main ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay Leauge) website, http://arrl.com

  26. My little handheld ham radio, a Kenwood TH-D7, has the full ability to send digital text messages, including GPS data along with the message.

    I never actually thought of setting it up, but it would be a very simple task to post a Twitter message using a radio and now that the thought comes up, I might just see about turning that feature on.

    I currently already use my radio when flying (I’m a private pilot) to gather airport weather data. I just send a properly formed text message and a few seconds later the textual weather data for any airport is texted right back to my radio :-)

    And it doesn’t take much at all to send that text message straight up to a satellite if you’re worried about power outage and loss of local infrastructure.

    Ham radio is not dead, it’s quite popular and growing now that the morse code requirements are completely gone for the Technician class license.

    If you’d like more information contact me, http://ki6esh.com or visit the main ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay Leauge) website, http://arrl.com

  27. Could ham radio stations broadcast some signal a computer could tap into? Like a simple web server over some sort of “wi-fi”. If so you could be on to something.

  28. Could ham radio stations broadcast some signal a computer could tap into? Like a simple web server over some sort of “wi-fi”. If so you could be on to something.

  29. Robert I beg to differ if its the big one I suspect Hams will be how the outside world will here about it. As per Katrina

    http://www.arrl.org/news/stories/2006/03/09/4/?nc=1

    I have my doubts how well any mobile network (let alone the US one) will stand up to a big disaster and I supect that like the uk in the event of a major disaster mobiles might/will be turned off for civilains to allow police/security/ phone companies to comunicate.

    Thats why I know people (Phone co Civil disater Planning/liason) who have phones with 2 sims and they hope to god that they neaver have to use the second sim.

  30. Robert I beg to differ if its the big one I suspect Hams will be how the outside world will here about it. As per Katrina

    http://www.arrl.org/news/stories/2006/03/09/4/?nc=1

    I have my doubts how well any mobile network (let alone the US one) will stand up to a big disaster and I supect that like the uk in the event of a major disaster mobiles might/will be turned off for civilains to allow police/security/ phone companies to comunicate.

    Thats why I know people (Phone co Civil disater Planning/liason) who have phones with 2 sims and they hope to god that they neaver have to use the second sim.

  31. Twitter/Micromedia vs Big Media – two very, very different things. In an area which has multiple quakes a day, this was only news because it was the biggest since 1989. The quakes rarely make the news unless there is damage or loss of life, so you would expect the big media to get the big picture which was relevant to people outside the area. The story as it was pretty irrevelent. If there had been injuries, then it would have been a bigger story AND they would have started giving out contact numbers to call, but they are not there to provide the ‘your wife/husband/sister/brother etc etc’ is OK to all the individuals.

    On the other hand, the personal side, it was big news. It was a bigger quake than most people had ever been in – they really felt it. What twitter bought was the personal news, from people you know or at least had an affinity with. In that case, it is faster and it is relevant, but the relevance is limited on a global scale.

  32. Twitter/Micromedia vs Big Media – two very, very different things. In an area which has multiple quakes a day, this was only news because it was the biggest since 1989. The quakes rarely make the news unless there is damage or loss of life, so you would expect the big media to get the big picture which was relevant to people outside the area. The story as it was pretty irrevelent. If there had been injuries, then it would have been a bigger story AND they would have started giving out contact numbers to call, but they are not there to provide the ‘your wife/husband/sister/brother etc etc’ is OK to all the individuals.

    On the other hand, the personal side, it was big news. It was a bigger quake than most people had ever been in – they really felt it. What twitter bought was the personal news, from people you know or at least had an affinity with. In that case, it is faster and it is relevant, but the relevance is limited on a global scale.

  33. This is totallt inconceivable. A small group — which must mean more than three or four — of middle-aged men around a table, and only one takes a phone call — he just “happened” to pick it up?! Couldn’t have occurred in more mature markets; everybody would have been responding to calls and texts.

  34. This is totallt inconceivable. A small group — which must mean more than three or four — of middle-aged men around a table, and only one takes a phone call — he just “happened” to pick it up?! Couldn’t have occurred in more mature markets; everybody would have been responding to calls and texts.

  35. I was tracking “quake” and “earthquake” on Twitter last night and managed to capture a pretty complete transcript of the information flow that was happening on twitter: http://urltea.com/1xtu
    Robert, with the number of people that you follow, I imagine that your Twitter must have looked something like this.

  36. I was tracking “quake” and “earthquake” on Twitter last night and managed to capture a pretty complete transcript of the information flow that was happening on twitter: http://urltea.com/1xtu
    Robert, with the number of people that you follow, I imagine that your Twitter must have looked something like this.

  37. You did some astounding work last night reporting live whilst CNN and Foxnews were sleeping.

    I’m especially thankful because we couldn’t get a hold of my gf’s sister, and I kept track of all reports via Twitter.

    Tim Bray, of Sun Microsystems was also in contact with his friends in the area and reported as he was learning more about the situation.

    CNN later gave a lame image of shampoo bottles that fell off a supermarket shelf. Pathetic.

    You just can’t depend on Big Media anymore.

    Howard Lindzon would say:

    Big Media: short

    Citizen Journalism: loooooooooooong

  38. You did some astounding work last night reporting live whilst CNN and Foxnews were sleeping.

    I’m especially thankful because we couldn’t get a hold of my gf’s sister, and I kept track of all reports via Twitter.

    Tim Bray, of Sun Microsystems was also in contact with his friends in the area and reported as he was learning more about the situation.

    CNN later gave a lame image of shampoo bottles that fell off a supermarket shelf. Pathetic.

    You just can’t depend on Big Media anymore.

    Howard Lindzon would say:

    Big Media: short

    Citizen Journalism: loooooooooooong

  39. Maurice: bulls**t. I don’t even know someone who uses a ham radio.

    They might be important in some places, but sorry, they aren’t going to be how you hear about news in earthquake zones. At least not in the modern world.

  40. Maurice: bulls**t. I don’t even know someone who uses a ham radio.

    They might be important in some places, but sorry, they aren’t going to be how you hear about news in earthquake zones. At least not in the modern world.

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