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.

So, what's the big deal with Twitter?

Someone asked this question at LinkedIn recently. My answer was so long that I thought it could be a post.

So, what is the big deal with Twitter?

I am a recent user of Twitter. Sometimes I update several times a day; sometimes I do not even log in. Yet I recognise that Twitter has the potential to be useful. I am no proselytiser but here is some information which you may find useful.

Twitter’s home page asks: “What are you doing?”. It is that simple. It is a micro-blogging service that allows you to share details of your life. Of course, you choose what, when (moment-by-moment or less frequent) and with whom (you can protect your tweets and allow followers only on request) to share, just like in blogging.

Twitter status updates, called ‘tweets’, are short by design. At 140 characters, a tweet is shorter than an SMS. The shortness means one can make more ‘real time’ updates on Twitter than on Facebook, GoogleTalk or Linkedin.

So is Twitter useful for anything? Yes. Here are some examples.

1. Crowd-sourcing: I recently answered many questions for a New York based VC whose daughter was facing some problems in Edinburgh. One can have a direct messaging (DM) based conversation or post all replies as tweets. The said VC visited Edinburgh and continued to share his experiences on Twitter.

I have also noticed journalists seeking expert recommendations for forthcoming articles. A woman asked her ‘followers’ for their opinion on what she should order, as she sat in a restaurant! I have also sourced information on Twitter from time to time and my efforts at ‘crowd-sourcing’ are better rewarded than my sole attempt here.

The option of mobile-Twittering extends the possibilities. A mobile tweet from JP Rangaswami told Alice that he and I were stuck on the same Heathrow runway waiting for Dubya to leave.

Frequent updates mean that the community is constantly engaged, in an ‘always-on’ rather than ‘batch-processing’ mode.

Caveat emptor applies as elsewhere in life.

2. Promotion and discussion: Several Twitter members promote their recent blog posts, media appearances and other projects etc to other Twitter members (who are following them).

Others have been discussing their experiences with testing products, and issues such as ‘why Sania Mirza wore a track suit while in the Indian pageant at the Olympics opening ceremony’.

3. Possible networking: This can come from being smart about one’s tweets in content and frequency. One can ask smart questions and engage in intelligent conversations with influencers or indeed be influential in driving a conversation. It takes a lot of creativity to say meaningful things in 140 characters without text-speak.

People announce their advance travel plans and set up formal or informal meetings. Others actively seek companions for cinema or hiking or other activities.

A possible problem is that stream-of-consciousness micro-blogging can sometimes damage one’s carefully cultivated public persona! Blogger Jackie Danicki (via Alice, because I do not follow Jackie Danicki’s tweets, which are protected) is of the view that it is best not to follow one’s “heroes” on Twitter.

In other words, like all tools, Twitter needs to be used with care.

What are the possible negatives?

1. Realisable value: For a user to realise the value in the network, the nodes, or people with shared interests, need to be valuable. It is not always easy to locate these nodes. Twitter’s search function is quite limited, some people use creative handles for micro-blogging and some, such as I, may forget to fill their profiles in a meaningful way. Summize, Twitter’s latest acquisition now enabling search, is trying to make searching easy. I am yet to be convinced.

2. Spam: Spammers could start following you and then you find your tweets all over the place. I had a Japanese spammer following me for a while. It is not nice, especially when you have no idea what he or she is saying on his or her own micro-blog! A fix may be to protect your updates but that is a bit extreme in my view.

You can also ‘block’ selectively. After a spat over the Swastika, TechCrunch’s Arrington blocked me. I have no idea if he has unblocked me since because I haven’t bothered to check. I prefer GigaOm for valley news, hah!

3. Time-wastage: Twitter can be a big time-waster. But can you name something on the internet that does not have the time-wasting potential already?

A bad workman blames his tools; a good workman knows he has only himself to blame. Twitter is a tool. One can use it or abuse it.

4. Rubbish content: Just as the blogosphere is full of rubbish blogs, poorly researched and badly written, with legions of ‘readers’ praising terrible writers as the “best-writers-ever”, Twitter-ville too has a lot of rubbish.

If one starts to follow any of the rubbishy ones, and realisation dawns slowly, it is easy to un-follow them. It is not very different from the blogosphere where one can stop following certain blogs.

And rubbish is subjective anyway. I follow foodie tweeple, which may not interest you just as bhangra-pop is unlikely to push my buttons.

Hopefully so far there is something to explain the ‘big deal with Twitter’. Now, for the bit that I find hilarious and dubious.

Like most relationships, one can expect to get what one puts in. Mostly. In my view, “big egos” appear more evident on Twitter than in the blogosphere. This could be because terse tweets, in the absence of a context, can come across as extremely self-indulgent.

There can also be a game – for some who are minded that way – to increase one’s “follower” numbers. Recently Twitter had a problem with their software and for a while, both the followers and the followed vanished from many profiles. The number of tweets from grown men and pillars of their business communities of the “dude, where have my followers gone?” variety were scarily numerous and hilarious, and also reminiscent of Jackie Danicki’s observation about following one’s heroes on Twitter.

Of course, if one is curious about the big deal with anything, perhaps it is best to find it out for oneself. So go on, tweet if you will.

And let me know what you think the big deal is, or is not, and why.

On Twitter, I follow, amongst 84:

Paul Kedrosky

Om Malik

JP Rangaswami

Guy Kawasaki

Additional reading (late addition):

Jeff Pulver calls Twitter “the Ham Radio of the Internet”

Update on August 13th:

Brought my ‘following’ list down from 88 to 50. How? Well, I cleaned it up.

Now I retain only those who are at least two of these: ‘informative’, ‘interesting’, ‘dialectical’, ‘original’.