News from cyclone hit Burma and earthquake struck China has been nothing short of shocking over the last couple of weeks. With both countries facing estimated fatalities of 200,000 and 50,000 respectively and many more injured it has been hard to fathom the devastation and it’s long term impact not least because it has been difficult to get news from these areas. Twitter however, the 140 word microblogging service, together with mobile phone usage has opened up a whole new channel of information that is arguably more immediate and relevant than blogging when disaster strikes.
Burma’s Junta have worked hard to keep access to the country by foreign nationals limited while the epicentre of China’s earthquake, Wenchuan, tucked away in the hills has meant that no news was forthcoming for days due to collapsed passes and mountainous terrain preventing even helicopters landing there. Power outages have also meant that making calls to find loved ones has been impossible. Texting and Tweeting however has been far more accessible.
In China in particular news posted by Chinese Twitterer’s has been phenomenal not just in terms of information but also reporting opinion and comment on how the government have responded to the disaster; people’s voices are coming through loud and clear. Having lived in China and considering it my second home, following people Twittering from China has given me a huge sense of connectedness that I’ve not felt before outside of China.
Just as I, as an individual, am following closely what is happening in China, the Chinese government is equally aware of scrutiny from other countries on the eve of the Olympics. Coverage on Chinese Central Television (CCTV) has been constant beaming not just images of the quake but also Premier Wen Jiabao visiting Chungdu, the capital of Sichuan province, within days. Something Bush infamously didn’t do after hurricane Katrina struck in New Orleans.
What’s important to remember however is that access to this news from these inaccessible places using Twitter would not be possible without the use of mobile phones. In countries such as China mobile phone usage is significantly higher than access to the web via desktops. Despite Chinese subscribers to Twitter numbering less than 3000, when traffic peaked in the days immediately following the quake on May 12th, Twitter played a disproportionately large role in the dissemination of first hand information. As reported by Rory Cellen-Jones on the BBC blog:
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.
It’s not just a comparison to traditional media that is relevant however but also Twitter’s unique ability to enable more people to simultaneously broadcast to the world faster than any other channel on the web. This, combined with being able to Tweet on the move using mobiles, is what really gives Twitter it’s edge.
- If you’re interested in listening in to what’s being said in China right now check out the Twittervision’s China page.
- For quality Tweets follow Fuzheado, Shanghaiist, Niubi and Shizhao (if you read Chinese).
- For in-depth analysis of how Twitter was used in China during the quake check out The Chinese earthquake and Twitter: crowdsourcing without managers.
- For discussion on the future of Twitter see Why Twitter matters.