Beki Grinter

Twitter before Shockwaves

In empirical, HCI, research, social media on August 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm

About 30 minutes ago I felt, here in Atlanta GA, the shockwaves from the earthquake that happened in Virginia. Since Earthquakes are rare on the Eastern Seaboard, when I felt them I actually wondered whether I was having a mild dizzy spell. I logged on to the US Geological Survey website to find out whether I had actually experienced an earthquake.

My first clue that I was right was that the website was temporarily unavailable and then it took a long time to load. My working hypothesis is that a lot of other people were checking it also. Then of course i went to twitter.

In Atlanta it’s Will and Jada (Smith & Pinkett, who’ve announced that they are separating) that is trending on twitter. A first for me to use twitter as a resource and not know what hashtag to look for. But after a bit of searching I found something even more intriguing. Several people in New York City reporting that they learnt about the earthquake in Virginia before they felt the aftershocks.

I guess twitter beat the shockwaves for some people. I would love to know more about how that works. Did they happen to have active twitter friends from Virginia who they were following (I suppose most likely), or was it breaking news services, or even retweets?

And in the oddest announcement, the University of Toronto Press has announced a 20% discount on their books today. Code: Earthquake20.

Ah, so partial answer. Some people saw it trending on twitter before they felt the shockwaves. Not true for me as I said. And another, some people in New York were following people in DC and saw the tweets coming in from there (I’ve seen that multiple times now). Someone in South Carolina read a tweet from DC and then felt it. Its a fascinating way to build up a map of the spread.

  1. There was an XKCD comic about this a while ago

    The Yahoo repost of the Mashable story (,dc) said that tweets from people beat the seismic waves which beat the news orgs.

    • thanks! Asked Leysia Palen who heads the EPIC project in crisis informatics at Colorado Boulder and she said that this was a known phenomenon. Very cool.

  2. Here’s the WWW paper the discusses exactly this phenomena (Twitter waves spread faster than earthquake):
    Sakaki et al., “Earthquake shakes Twitter users: real-time event detection by social sensors”

  3. […] networks were instrumental in informing people of the impending earthquake (apparently, you could read about it in your Twitter stream 15 seconds before you felt the quake … cool!). And that led, inevitably, to the media critiquing […]

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