Twitter in a time of emergency – a few observations, suggestions and thanks

Over the weekend, my hometown of Nashville experienced massive flooding due to unprecedented torrential rain. (For those who would like to help, please contribute to this fund set up by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.)

As I was in Charleston, S.C., for American Business Media committee and board meetings for most of both days, I was offline except for bits of time via my iPhone. Therefore, I found myself a spectator in an event about which I was extremely concerned. It won’t surprise those who know me through this blog that accessing Twitter with my iPhone would be my go-to medium in a situation like that. Last year, when I wrote about how I choose those I follow on Twitter, I said the following:

“I follow lots of people who list Nashville on the location line of their Twitter bio because I’ve been (for a long time) fascinated with the role of social media in emergency situations. Twitter is, to me, a natural early radar tracking system of breaking news of an emergency nature. I discovered fairly early in my blogging experience that it’s too late to put together a meaningful list of potential eye-witnesses to a local widespread emergency event if you wait until the emergency occurs.

In the tiny amount of time I could break away from meetings, Twitter kept me informed because I already have a large network of Nashvillians who were sharing their personal perspective of what was happening. (I discovered I also follow lots of people whose tweeting consisted of different versions of repeating what they were seeing on TV — which is also okay except for the times they were merely tweeting, “Geez, can you believe that video on Channel 5.”)

While Twitter is a “conversational” medium for many of us, lots of people (perhaps most) use it as something more like a distribution (broadcast) tool or as a subscription “catcher.” What do I mean? Some people and media organizations and companies use Twitter as a means to push out news, especially links to content that may appear on their sites. And some people who may never “tweet” (send out a message) use Twitter as a means to follow what’s taking place (known also as “lurking,” but that sounds a bit dark for something that’s entirely okay to do).

As I found myself in the unusual position of being such a “lurker” yesterday, I do have some friendly suggestions to those, like me, who are “conversational” users of Twitter. Again, these are not a criticisms (or, if they are, I’m first in line for the self-criticism) just some observations:

1. When you find yourself in the middle of a breaking news story, the best thing you can do is share anything you know or see that is unique: What is happening around you. Your eye-witness account. Re-posting the major announcements, news, you see on TV is helpful, like I said before. But “your part” of the story is the best.

2. The use of hashtags is so important an issue in a time like this, I believe there needs to be serious thought given to developing suggested standards for emergency-oriented hashtags. Over the past two days I’ve seen a wide variety of Nashville flood related hashtags. Some of the most helpful information was being tagged with a very “inside baseball” tag local Twitter users may have understood, but not casual users of Twitter or those in other cities seeking information about loved ones.

3. Live-streaming video: A perfect example of when flash is needed on a mobile device. (Weird that I have never missed not having Flash, and now that Apple’s made a big deal out of blasting it, I’m discovering where it’s helpful.)

4. Having one open blog post or Flickr set or collection of videos on YouTube are all good methods to share on-going observations. Using TwitPic is probably not the best, as people seeking info rarely search there.

5. A collaborative map, with Twitter updates, is a great way to tell an emergency story in a non-linear way. Here’s one the Tennessean set up. I’ll make some suggestions later for how to improve such a breaking-news map, but I’ve gotta hand it to my friends at the Tennessean: They’ve come a long, long way in the past 18 months in their use of Twitter and other social media tools outside the Gannett-issued CMS.

Again, on behalf of those who weren’t in Nashville, thanks to those of you who used Twitter and other eye-witness tools to keep the rest of us informed.