Musing about Twitter and crises and participation

For many people, the recent and tragic Mumbai terrorist attacks had one unintended consequence: the coming of age of Twitter. As the FT put it, Twitter Turns Serious With Messages of Life and Death.

There’s a lot of good coverage out there in the blogosphere: Dan Gillmor, who first got me interested in the concept of “citizen media” sometime in 2002, makes two critical points about the difference between social media and MSM in his post Wikipedia as Vital Breaking News Source: one, the significantly higher frequency of updates in social media and two, the incredible richness of context provided via the the technique of linking. I guess Dan is the doyen of citizen media, he now runs the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in the space where social media touches journalism, you could learn a lot just by visiting Dan’s Center For Citizen Media blog. His blogroll, headlined Citizen Media Types, is an excellent place to extend your knowledge; I read many of those people regularly.

One of them is Amy Gahran, who touches on a very important subject, responsible tweeting, in her blog Rumours. You should read her piece “Tracking a Rumour: Indian Government, Twitter and Common Sense”. She also links to Mayank Dhingra’s Social Media: Handle With Care piece, also worth reading. What they have to say reinforces Journalism 101 tenets: the criticality of source verification; the importance of objectivity; avoidance of hatred-inducing subjects; the need for brevity.

Mindy McAdams, in her blog Teaching Online Journalism, covers some useful topics in Twitter, Mumbai and 10 facts about Journalism Now. Of particular importance is the role of the mobile phone, specifically the class of device that can cover both cellular as well as wireless. Her latest post, Breaking News Online: A short History and Timeline, is also worth reading, as is the Are These The Biggest Moments in Journalism-Blogging History post from the Online Journalism blog which she refers to.

Dina Mehta has been covering the events from an ethnographer’s perspective, combining her sociology and anthropology disciplines, and is well worth reading as well, both on Twitter as well as in the blogosphere. Whatever information I received first hand, I tended to filter it through the lens of reading Dina’s tweets. It helped.

We’ve also seen a bunch of tools get refined and improved during the Mumbai crisis: examples are:  Tweet Grid (which I found incredibly useful, the ability to receive topic-specific Twitter update feeds); Cover It Live also got some traction over the last few days. Even Blog Talk Radio, something I really like, got in on the act with SAJA HQ.

I’ve been through a few crises in my time, with different scales and personal impacts. What I’ve noticed is the following:

  • Crises attract rubberneckers, people who come along to watch, people who want to know what’s going on. Crowds form.
  • Because of this, crises attract extremists of various hues and styles. Politicians are the most common, nationalists and fundamentalists are not far behind. Sometimes all three merge into one person, a truly ugly phenomenon.
  • Rumour dominates. There’s a lot of Chinese Whispering going on, as the crowds grow and the extremists exploit.
  • All this comes in the way of three groups of people desperately trying to do their jobs: the security services, the emergency services and the media.

And in the midst of all this we have the people really involved, the victims of the crisis. Fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Human beings.

The stories are about them. Not about politics or nationalism or fundamentalism. Not about tools and techniques.

And that’s why the use of social media in crisis management intrigues me, excites me. We’re able to join hands and actually do things for the people involved, leaving aside the three-ring circus going on.

What kind of things? Here’s a list of some of the things I witnessed in Twitter these past days:

  • People used Twitter to find other people, loved ones, relatives, friends, acquaintances. They provided status updates to others who needed that information. Person to person communications. Hospital lists. Sadly, even lists of those that perished. A classic crowdsource-able activity, reducing the workload on emergency services personnel. Most of the time, the tool used was a mobile phone with a camera.
  • People used Twitter to raise awareness of the need for resources. Blood. Food. Money. Shelter.
  • Twitter became a go-to-place for important telephone numbers, particularly for overseas contact numbers.
  • Twitter also performed one other critical function: the democratic nature of the beast meant that the voices of extremists and rumour-mongerers was drowned out.

The two-way participative nature of social media, coupled with the always-on affordable ubiquity of the tools used, changes the game. This is not about news and journalism. It’s about participation. Someone in Buenos Aires or Budapest or Birmingham or Butte can actually help someone in Mumbai, by carrying out searches, quashing rumours, pointing to information sources, helping put people in touch with each other.

Sometimes I think about all this as a giant virtual switchboard manned by volunteers, willing and able to help. We should be thinking about how we can improve all this. How we can set up this virtual switchboard effectively. How we can help quash rumours. How we can take the load off the security and emergency services people.

How we can best help the people most affected. Using a variety of tools at our disposal. Including my favourite one: prayer.

incidentally, if you’re interested in following my tweets, I’m known there as @jobsworth or

17 thoughts on “Musing about Twitter and crises and participation”

  1. Great post, JP.

    On Wednesday evening, my first response was shock followed by tears. At some point, I did go to bed.

    By Thursday morning, I was wondering why Twitter was such a useful tool in this horrid time. I wrote a short post here from an analytical point of view (we all have our coping mechanisms, don’t we?):

    What I forgot to mention was that all through, as traffic went through the roof, not once but not once was the FAIL whale encountered.

  2. Well said, JP. I’ve been watching this very evolution for about a year. It was the day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated that I saw it in play for the first time as stories began unfolding and people began talking on Seesmic. Within an hour there were more angles, tales and perspectives than you saw in a full day of repeated images and repeated scripts on CNN. The difference now is that the “old” media are tapping into these new mediums … now if we can only find a way to use the technology to help avoid the tragedy we’ll be making true progress!

  3. Thanks Shefaly, thanks Cathy. There’s always a stage where people are discovering uses for a tool, then there comes a time when the potential for the tool comes into its own.

    Twitter’s potential lies in three things: the publish-subscribe nature of the beast, low barriers to entry and the ability to provide rich context.

    We have to learn how to harness that potential for good uses. Like crises. Not circuses.

  4. JP: Nice post. I saw your tweets over the past couple of days and appreciated your sober (not hysterical) response to the whole thing. Maybe we should nationalize Twitter so they don’t go bankrupt in the coming economic crisis. Heaven knows the news outlets are all going to be bankrupt, and we’ll need a lot more than Twitter to fill the hole.

  5. Hi JP,

    The power of Social Media is exemplified in situations like these and so do the problems.
    While following the #mumbai I realized that how big an echo chamber had it become, every third-forth update was a copy of a previous one(Noise). Similarly there were lots of rumors of sorts. Its particularly difficult to filter out the real and important news in participatory media and as some suggested its time we have an ethics guide for “citizen journalism”.

    Thanks for linking me up but I think you pointed the link to about page(twice) instead of the post :)

  6. Josh, Mayank, thanks for your comments. I’m not worrying about twitter going bankrupt. As yet. Their burn rate couldn’t be that high.

    Mayank, I’m intrigued by your “echo chamber” comment, it’s a sentiment that seems to be growing.

    And you know something? I don’t understand why. Every crisis I’ve been in that involved a crowd, the crowd gossiped. Passed rumours round. Repeated what they’d heard, often corrupting the original statement.

    All without the help of any social media tool, twitter or no twitter.

    The echo chamber is not one that is made by social media. It is made by man. And it is natural.

  7. JP its human to add our own bit to anything we relay further, it could be our own theories, our own facts or something else.

    People also have this tendency to say something just for saying because they think they are contributing something while doing so. People might just re-post even something like “Shivraj Patil is now in trending list ” which are not neither news nor helpful.

    Here’s something I wrote about the echo chamber and how we are trying to take care of it in kwippy.

  8. Interesting. So you feel centralising conversation is good, that fragmented and scattered conversations are bad. Maybe I’m misinterpreting you. I’d like to understand more. Particularly because I don’t have the same perspective, and would like to learn.

    I will post something later today, to try and explain further.

  9. JP

    I agree on the basic features of Twitter. Whether it is used for a crisis or becomes a circus surely depends on the discretion of the users. It is a tool and can be misused too. A knife in a chef’s hand is a device to julienne carrots e.g. but in a killer’s hand, a device to unleash mayhem. No?

    I have to disagree with likening RT to an echo chamber in the above comment. The retweet serves a purpose – of wider dissemination. That every person has networks which do not overlap or if they do, overlap only a little, the retweet allows the info to be disbursed more widely.

    The rumours too were quickly quashed by people who were closer to the situation or otherwise not retweeted, both direct and implied ‘social oppobrium’ of sorts. This self-corrective element was quite impressive if one looks at the minuscule % of tweets that were rumours and were allowed to propagate wildly.

  10. Yes, I feel centralizing conversations as much as possible is a good idea for it will lead to less noise and better discussions/conversations.

    Scattered conversation is one of the biggest problem that’s haunting social media and centralized conversations can help reduce them. It’s not just the intra platform scattering of conversation that causes duplication and islands of small small conversations but the inter platform scattering too. For ex: I wrote a blog post, shared it on Kwippy and Facebook now each one of three will have discussion, so not only is replying to them differently and keeping a track is painful, maintaining context is another issue. To help the cause of having concentrated conversations kwippy even provides rss and atom feeds for comments on a kwip, which anyone can take to their blog or somewhere else and integrate with existing comments.

    Thoughts ?

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