China’s Earthquake: The Twitter Story

Earlier today I got a worried message from a friend in Shanghai (where I am based). He said that that over at Nanjing street an office building had been evacuated because of a tremor. He had not yet heard about the earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale that happened 60 miles north of Chengdu, Sichuan’s provincial capital. This quake was felt all over the country. Shanghai was relatively unscathed, compared to cities like Chengdu and Chongqing.

My friend updated me fast on the social networks he uses: apparently he relies mostly on Facebook after having dumped Twitter. As I followed this story via my Twitter account, Twitter developed in just a few hours into an excellent information tool, combining different sources of information. I knew more about the earthquake than many people in China.

On the ground, in Chengdu, at least three “Twitterati” were on their way — as one called it — to their 15 minutes of world fame. Here’s some of what they posted:

  • Casperodj: “Slightly dizzy after being shaken around by the Chengdu earthquake for several hours now.”
  • inwalkedbud (In reply to casperodj): “At home in fact, cooking dinner and getting on with things. Just had another aftershock though.”

Other Twitterers kept an eye on what the traditional media were reporting. In some cases they became a bridge between the Chengdu-based Twitterati and mainstream media:

  • Andrew Lih (fuzheado): “CNN’s John Vause in Beijing: 900 school children in Sichuan buried; 3000 troops and helicopters, Wen Jiabao on their way.”
  • Michael Darragh (michaeldarragh): “BBC says 100 confirmed dead and rising.”

A third group kept a close and critical eye on the Chinese Internet, where obvious false rumors where combined with interesting factlets:

  • Kaiser Kuo (kaiserkuo): “Take this how you will, but QQ news is posting the 10 pm – 12am warning for Beijing I thought was erroneous:”

Obviously, the Twitter angle will become one of the more important sidepaths of this unfolding story, next to the news about the earthquake itself. Reports of the first casualties are coming slowly. In Sichuan province, some people have returned to their houses — but for many this will be a very long night.

(Read more on this story at Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog today.)

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