Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
May 13

Twitter and the Chinese Earthquake

A number of people have blogged regarding the use of Twitter as a reporting tool during the yesterday’s earthquake in China, including BusinessWeek.com, The San Jose Mercury News’ “Good Morning Silicon Valley,” the BBC and our Ogilvy Chinese colleagues who write the “Digital China” blog.

At the same time, slightly off-the-topic, News.com’s “Geek Gestalt” added the following item on Twitter.

Here is the Merc’s set-up and take on the issue…

The fans of microblogging service Twitter, led by head cheerleader Robert Scoble, are all aflutter today with the sense that in speedily passing along word of this morning’s earthquake in China, they have participated in a news reporting revolution. Seems Scoble started getting and forwarding tweets from China even as the ground was still shaking, an entire minute or two before the USGS posted preliminary data on location and strength, and more minutes before the bulletins started moving on the news wires. Wrote Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC, “Let’s see, as this story unfolds, whether this is the moment when Twitter comes of age as a platform which can bring faster coverage of a major news event than traditional media, while allowing participants and onlookers to share their experiences.”

An important tipping point in news dissemination during a disaster? In timeliness, maybe by increments over phones, blogs, text messages, e-mail, forum posts and the news wires (assuming that you’re an active Twitter user and happen to follow the right people). In reliability, certainly not. By any of the aforementioned means, initial information is going to be scattered, anecdotal and often flat-out wrong. And in usefulness, well, what exactly do you gain with those extra few minutes of awareness that a tragedy is unfolding? A heads up to start keeping an eye on more authoritative sources and some more time to yak about how terrible it all is. It always takes about the same amount of time for a full picture to emerge from these situations, and knowing about it minutes earlier doesn’t change that.

Not that all the tweeting is without value. For one, it’s many-to-many communication, so the information (or misinformation) on that channel may hit a wider audience than a post or e-mail and allow for quick pooling of resources. And if your interest in disasters lies primarily in first-person accounts (or if you’re a journalist gathering same for inclusion in a more complete report), the Twitter talk fills the bill (if you can sort through the babble). Charitably, you can think of it as additional copy for history’s first draft. But let’s not get so excited that we confuse news fodder with news.

I will readily admit that I’m not sold on Twitter.  Yes, there are times (which you can count on one hand) when reporters have used Twitter to post breaking political news — I’m thinking John Dickerson and Slate.com earlier this year — so it may have some limited benefit as the latest iteration of the urgent bulletin that Associated Press and other wire services send out.  Apparently, Scoble and others are impressed that people learned about the Chinese earthquake before anything was posted on the U.S. Geological Survey’s Web site or the wire services.  In all honesty, big whoop.  I’m guessing those posts didn’t provide a lot of context — and even Scoble had to go to the USGS to figure out if this was a big quake or a little one like the earthquake that hit Virginia last week. Or, to quote Ogilvy China…

Sure, in the immediate moments after the users in China — mostly in Beijing and Shanghai — felt their buildings sway, we were able to get it out that there had been an earthquake. We didn’t know where, though, until we went to more informed sources like the USGS. I for one thought that it had been somewhere much closer by — in Hebei Province, or perhaps in Inner Mongolia.

I think the Merc and Ogilvy China get it about right that Twitter and microblogging can be useful in some cases, but I still can’t get past posts about “I just ordered a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch” or “I just got to the office.”  Only time will tell whether this was an important event in the history of journalism or whether Twitter will end up being like Pointcast, Second Life and other balleyhooed technologies that ended up being little more than hot air.  Right now, my money is on the latter.


Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide