En cas d'emergence …

… head for Twitter.

As Mumbai saw an unprecedented instance of what can only be described as ‘distributed terrorism’, Twitter sprung into action. Twelve hours later, Twitter users all over the world were saying they found Twitter updates more reliable, timely and clear.

The following characteristics of Twitter make it a perfect tool for use in emergencies – both for disseminating updates and  information, and for coordinating help efforts such as contacting friends and relatives, and organising blood donation drives.

Distributed system

Twitter is a distributed system with a high level of heterogeneity. Individual Twitter users have ‘follower’ and ‘following’ lists of people in different countries. These relationships are based on their common interests and other criteria e.g. I follow only those who are at least two of these: ‘informative’, ‘interesting’, ‘dialectical’, ‘original’.

The distributed nature of Twitter means that many people can cover many sources of information in many geographical locations. Their 140-character messages, or ‘tweets’, can also reach their widely disbursed ‘followers’.

Scalable system

When these ‘tweets’ reach the ‘followers’, they can then decide to ‘RT’ or re-tweet the messages to their own ‘followers’, thus disseminating the information quite widely, quite quickly.

Self-organising system

Pretty quickly after the Mumbai gunfires, grenades and car-bombs became common knowledge, a hashtag #mumbai was settled upon for Twitter users.

Hashtags helps Twitterers classify and annotate their tweets, and separate them from the other traffic. Those looking for information could just go to Twitter Search with this hashtag and follow the developments.

Self-regulating system

The morning after the incidents began, there were unsubstantiated rumours that the Indian government was trying to block Twitter for security reasons. These were quashed or otherwise not re-tweeted since there was no confirmation from official sources.

Twitter users also were quick to condemn mainstream media for broadcasting live details of every move by the police and the commandos, and every gunshot or explosion.

These behaviours demonstrate a degree of self-regulation, self-correction and responsibility in the system.

Feeder system

Twitter helped the creation and preparation of meta-documents where information was documented and live-updated for those who are not on Twitter and looking for information. The Wikipedia page on Mumbai Attacks came into being within a couple of hours of the terrorism incident beginning. The blog MumbaiHelp came together for information and help quickly after too. As Vinu’s Flickr stream of photos went online, he spent much time talking to CNN and other news channels. In these instances, Twitter acts as a feeder system to other sources of information, more permanent perhaps that millions of tweets that can become overwhelming for some.

As the Taj Mahal Palace hotel burned, I watched with disbelief. I tweeted: I don’t know if the heritage is being razed or the future is being set alight… Here is a shot I captured from BBC News on television.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on fire (image captured from BBC News)

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on fire (image captured from BBC News)

So, what about India?

Life is difficult but it is so for everyone, especially when it comes to terrorism. But I remain bullish about India. That I can write such an analytical piece about something so emotive suggests I am back to being my calm, rational self. What about you?

Additional reading:

So, what’s the big deal with Twitter?

Late additions – Dec 1st, 2008:

Tim O’Reilly’s post on Why he loves Twitter – it is simple, works as people do, cooperates with other platforms, transcends the web, is user-extensible and evolves quickly. Read the whole post though.

JP Rangaswami muses about both the positives and the negatives of Twitter, crises and participation.

This post is also referred in:

Neue Zuercher Zeitung’s article about Twitter emerging as an important source of information in the Mumbai terrorism attacks.

19 thoughts on “En cas d'emergence …

  1. Mumbai is a very resilient city. It is tragic, shocking, horrible, but it will recover. I trust in the spirit of Bombay.
    This cannot be allowed to happen again, anywhere. What else can these networks deliver?

    Very socially responsible to control information while communicating well

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  3. Shefaly,
    “But I remain bullish about India. That I can write such an analytical piece about something so emotive suggests I am back to being my calm, rational self. What about you?”

    I still can’t write a good piece on this. If I start, that will be a burst of emotions.
    Really well written.
    -Nikhil

  4. Pingback: Global Voices Online » India: Twitting The Terror

  5. I think on an average, Twitter users are about 10 mins ahead of national/international media. I’ve been following labellagorda too, as she traveled for work (being a journalist and forced by boss) and got back home safely. I hate to admit this, but I do think that Twitter is here to stay for good.

    P.S- I regularly search for “iPhone” on Twitter. It’s fun. :) There are many other sister Twitter sites (Twitter feed, curse.twitter.com etc) that organize Tweets in a fashionable manner. Someone on Tumblr did a research by parsing all Tweets in the last 1 hour of the experiment(What are people thankful for this TG?) being conducted. He found that friends and family still top the list, followed by god and job.

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  8. I am not back to my usual self. I find myself distracted, shaky. I let the milk boil over, I didn’t taste what I was eating, I found myself jumpy. My heart feels heavy.

  9. It will take me some time to get back to normal. I was not able to work in the office at all. Eyes were moist all the time.
    Its hard to forget this one…

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  14. @Undercover Indian: Thanks. I do wish however I had a better case study on which to base this abstraction.

    @AantelAdda: Good question “what else can these networks deliver?”. Part of the answer may lie in an old post listed in the additional reading above. More uses are yet evolving although my belief is that unless Twitter comes up with a revenue model soon, the uses may not be sufficient to keep it afloat.

    @Mayank Dhingra: Thanks for your note. Yes, the real time search and the feed are both very useful too. But they essentially are “derivative” utilities of Twitter’s self-organising nature, don’t you agree? Search would be very cumbersome if the posting of tweets and their archiving weren’t so well-organised.

    @Nikhil Narayanan: Thanks for your note and your kind words. Abstraction comes naturally to me but yes, I agree we have different styles and time-scales to coping with complex issues.

    @Reema: Thanks. I would be surprised if there were no different points of view. Thanks for the link.

    @Ruhi: Thanks for your note. You may be right about the average time advantage Twitter has over mainstream media. In case of the recent Bangalore blasts and the Delhi Diwali blasts, Twitter was almost an hour ahead of BBC Breaking News.

    I am keen to explore some Twitter related tools, may be Tweetdeck. I may also try the other ones you mention. Thanks.

    @Nita: I am sorry to hear that. The events affected every one to varying degrees. I hope you are better now.

    @Amit: You are not alone, although in this case, I am not yet sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

    @Liam: Thanks for both your notes. The various – unforeseen or unforeseeable – uses of products and technologies have always fascinated me. Baking soda has more non-baking uses than those related to baking, for instance. Businesses can find amazing new revenue opportunities through these uses (although finding one may be a start for Twitter).

    Thanks. I noted that this post has been co-opted into a University blog by Journalism professors. Subsequently of course, I have noticed the media discussion on the role of social media in the whole episode as well. My friend, Dina Mehta, wrote a good article on CNN on the issue as well. I am mildly glad that as analytical pieces go, mine was the first and so far probably the most complete one to appear, although I would have liked the circumstances to be have been less disturbing.

What do YOU think?