Twitter: 1% great in emergencies, 99% boring

I have been experimenting with a little social media tool called Twitter. Here’s how it works: you sign up and then contribute messages / posts / blogs of 140 characters or less. You can contribute the messages online, via instant messaging, or SMS. You can tie in RSS feeds. Then you gather people who ‘follow’ your updates. You can also follow other people’s updates, either through a reader or via SMS to your phone.

What’s the appeal? Well, it caught my attention in relation to Cyclone Nargis, the China earthquake, Georgia-Russia conflict and recent earthquake in LA. In all cases it’s claimed that Twitter broke the story 4 – 30 minutes before mainstream media. Anyone within reach of a phone wrote short messages relating what had happened to their network of ‘followers’. Some media outlets (notably the BBC) have now started their own Twitter feed (or ‘tweets’). This means that if I ‘follow’ them, I will be sent an SMS telling me the latest news.

Potentially I could take photos / video of a disaster on my mobile phone, upload them to Flickr / Youtube, then ‘tweet’ my followers with a tinyurl to go and view them, all within minutes of the event. Imagine the importance of such a swift response for emergency services, NGOs, and even traditional media outlets. Even in the immediate aftermath of cyclone Nargis in developing Burma the mobile network in Rangoon was working reliably.

Or how about the tsunami? Imagine a time many, many years from now when some form of Twitter could act as the ultimate early warning system for such a disaster, with coastal communities following the tweet from the Tsunami Warning System. In Kenya 1 in 3 people has a mobile phone, and in many other poor communities around the world they are equally prominent.

So what’s the problem? Well, a few things to consider:

1) Despite being first to all of these emergencies, twitter wasn’t particularly insightful. ‘Earthquake’. ‘Shit. Big f***ing quake’. ‘Whoa, just felt a quake.’ It’s less than 140 characters, but it ‘aint Haiku and I’m not really closer to understanding what has happened. Potentially any enterprising tweeters could make themselves available for traditional media interviews. They could be singled out by starting to push out more factual or emotive descriptions of what they were experiencing.

2) Many of those who seemed to be providing more in depth information were just linking to traditional news websites. Big deal.

3) A lot of people are pushing the information out, but how many people are actually listening? I suspect that some of the praise for the service would become muted if they measured by followers receiving tweets rather than the number of tweets sent.

4) How much difference is 4 minutes going to make? That’s the gap between the first tweet and the first ‘mainstream’ report from AFP of the LA earthquake.

5) At the moment Twitter isn’t the most effective way of reaching a large audience. The vast majority of people using the service only have a handful of followers. If I’m in a disaster, I’m not tweeting – I’m calling the TV, radio or newspaper, or sending them photos and videos I’ve shot. Somewhere down the track this might change, but for the moment the audience isn’t big enough.

But here’s my main gripe about Twitter: while there are quite a few ways it could be useful, 99% of the time it is the most boring, dull, inane nattering you could imagine. I described Twitter (ironically via Twitter) as ‘just as inane as my blog posts, but more concise’.  Example: here are the two most recent tweets I just grabbed from the ‘Everyone’ feed:

  • Back from my morning run which was decent, longest run so far. Heading into work for another stressful day.
  • Good Morning everyone! At least we are now half way through the week. School starts here today so watch out for the kiddies!!Have a great day.

Super! Gee, I’d love those sorts of insights flowing to my mobile phone 24/7. I don’t know how I could possibly go on without knowing what Jenny from Arkansas is having for breakfast. How can I concentrate on work without hearing about how John in Perth is waiting for his train?

So for the moment I’m just gonna sit back and keep an eye on Twitter. It’s got some potential, but why does everyone feel the need to share the lint from the bellybuttons of their life?

That didn’t make sense. Anyway, the jury is out.

Next on Monkeybizness: Reflections on a mediocre football career (i.e, my football career).

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