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.

  • Rex:

    1. COVERAGE: Agreed. Bravo to the Tennessean. For their size as an organization, they're getting pretty agile. (Also, at the risk of being a user that is saying what everyone else is saying, kudos for Nashvillest's hard work.)

    2. HASHTAG: I agree with you that there should be more thought about hashtagging. The first first moments are key. Once a few folks jump on a hashtag, it's almost impossible to change gears. A few thoughts here: If there is one standard hashtag being used by locals, it's going to get pretty full of information and retweets to the point that it starts to loose it's advantages. As non-Nashvillians start using it, you'll see 70 rts of cnn and the feed becomes less useful. Is there value in multiple channels? e.g. nashvillefloodtraffic nashvillefloodnews nashvilleflood (Maybe not.) Also, maybe the best strategy to prepared at this point is to discuss how hashtags are formed and adopted. If a hashtag is needed, is there a standard protocol we can use to get quick feedback and move forward with a good decision?

  • I'm glad you posted this topic. I was just talking with @thezackbennett about the fact that it would be nice if there was a meet-up where local Nashvillians could discuss how this all unfolded on social media (SM) and learn from it. Although I agree with the spirit of your post, I do think social media was very effective in this situation, and I would change very little. This tragedy hit us all hard and fast, there was little time to prep for it, and that is why I believe SM not only worked well but evolved a bit locally. I agree with Nate's point #2 above that an emergency hashtag would get abused, but the suggestion is a productive one. Unfortunately, an episode on the scale of this past weekend couldn't have been predicted, and the hashtags were local and specific to the event. What was interesting (not that I should be surprised) to me was to witness the grassroots nature of SM communication during the floods. The hashtags' label was what it was, generated by and embraced by the local online community. I was also fascinated how new local SM “players” emerged while many folks with large audiences were fairly late to the game. I think if the rains had lasted another day you might've seen these centralized photo albums etc crop up, but what did occur organically online here in Nashville was very effective. Once again, thanks for posting your observations. I look forward to reading the other comments.

  • Please know that I am not complaing about how anyone uses Twitter, ever. I am not a news Twitter. I appreciate everything people did.

    I do think we can anticipate diasters and come up w suggested conventions of hashtags

  • Amen on your observations about hashtags. I blogged about that this morning at http://wp.theoblogical.org/?p=5904 and also quoted your bit on hashtags after finding it on Nashville 24/7. I gave a “tweet-lashing” to the users of the hashtag #theOtherSituation2010. When one twitter-er thismorning tweeted “To National News Media: use hashtags …..a b c…… I said to myself “well duh, it WAS a bit difficult to find on logical searches. A national social media article from Mashable article at http://mashable.com/2010/05/02/nashville-floodi… had none of the Nashville tweeters who used the dumb hashtags and didnt include Nashville AND Flood were nowhere on that list of thousands of tweets. Thanks for your observations.

  • I appreciate all the tweeting everyone did, despite any hashtag they used. That said, in a situation like this, I try to think of people who aren't in Nashville also, but who may have loved ones here, e.g., kids who are students at Vanderbilt, Belmont, etc. What are the words *they'd* be looking for is how I'd think about hashtagging. But I think it's through events like this — and reviewing what worked and didn't — is where we learn how to do better in the future. I do want to stress that I am not complaining!

  • I'd be happy to host such a tweet-up. I think reviewing and replaying how it roled out via social media is a good thing to do.

  • I'm glad you posted this topic. I was just talking with @thezackbennett about the fact that it would be nice if there was a meet-up where local Nashvillians could discuss how this all unfolded on social media (SM) and learn from it. Although I agree with the spirit of your post, I do think social media was very effective in this situation, and I would change very little. This tragedy hit us all hard and fast, there was little time to prep for it, and that is why I believe SM not only worked well but evolved a bit locally. I agree with Nate's point #2 above that an emergency hashtag would get abused, but the suggestion is a productive one. Unfortunately, an episode on the scale of this past weekend couldn't have been predicted, and the hashtags were local and specific to the event. What was interesting (not that I should be surprised) to me was to witness the grassroots nature of SM communication during the floods. The hashtags' label was what it was, generated by and embraced by the local online community. I was also fascinated how new local SM “players” emerged while many folks with large audiences were fairly late to the game. I think if the rains had lasted another day you might've seen these centralized photo albums etc crop up, but what did occur organically online here in Nashville was very effective. Once again, thanks for posting your observations. I look forward to reading the other comments.

  • Please know that I am not complaing about how anyone uses Twitter, ever. I am not a news Twitter. I appreciate everything people did.

    I do think we can anticipate diasters and come up w suggested conventions of hashtags

  • Amen on your observations about hashtags. I blogged about that this morning at http://wp.theoblogical.org/?p=5904 and also quoted your bit on hashtags after finding it on Nashville 24/7. I gave a “tweet-lashing” to the users of the hashtag #theOtherSituation2010. When one twitter-er thismorning tweeted “To National News Media: use hashtags …..a b c…… I said to myself “well duh, it WAS a bit difficult to find on logical searches. A national social media article from Mashable article at http://mashable.com/2010/05/02/nashville-floodi… had none of the Nashville tweeters who used the dumb hashtags and didnt include Nashville AND Flood were nowhere on that list of thousands of tweets. Thanks for your observations.

  • I appreciate all the tweeting everyone did, despite any hashtag they used. That said, in a situation like this, I try to think of people who aren't in Nashville also, but who may have loved ones here, e.g., kids who are students at Vanderbilt, Belmont, etc. What are the words *they'd* be looking for is how I'd think about hashtagging. But I think it's through events like this — and reviewing what worked and didn't — is where we learn how to do better in the future. I do want to stress that I am not complaining!

  • I'd be happy to host such a tweet-up. I think reviewing and replaying how it roled out via social media is a good thing to do.