En cas d’emergence …

… head for Twitter.

As Mumbai saw an unprecedented instance of what can only be described as ‘distributed terrorism’, Twitter sprang 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.

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