The New Zealand twitterverse is still abuzz, as people share information about the 2010 Canterbury Earthquake and its consequences. Now, 3 days in, these tweets are increasingly about services being restored, relief offers and businesses and organisations exchanging information & aid.
Here I want to make a special mention of the University of Canterbury which has set up a special Twitter account for news about its recovery.
Most people and official news outlets are now using the hashtag #eqnz, thus consolidating the information flow. As of this afternoon it had been used 18199 times on Tuesday at 6.30pm (updated Tue 07-09-2010).
I’ve been following the use of social media in this event and reported a little about two of the hashtags that were in use in an earlier post. I’ve been RTing useful tweets with the now prevailing #eqnz tag so they get a better spread.
In this process I’ve also received a few nasty tweets and comments about what some are calling “the hashtag war”. One person commenting:
“I don’t want to extend the #eqnz vs #christchurchquake war. I think it is the most stupid bit of fussing when the world is literally falling down around us.”
When the world is falling down around you, you need a few things: water, food, shelter and…information
If you are not a regular social media user, you may well agree. However, when the world is falling down around you, you need a few things: water, food, shelter and…information. In the early hours, many grabbed their mobile phones (closer to their beds than the battery-powered radios in their survival kits) and went to Twitter, because Twitter is all about sharing information. But to do this effectively, the information must be A. findable, B. usable and C. shareable.
The information that you broadcast through Twitter is publicly available on your Twitter profile page (here’s mine). However very few people will go and visit this page. Instead they will access their own home page, which displays a steady stream of the latest tweets of all the people that they are ‘following’. This stream is updated almost-live, every minute or so.
So now you find yourself in a major event, and you want your information to be findable beyond the 143 odd people that follow you. You also want to find information from other sources than just the 156 odd people that you follow. Saturday morning at 4.35 they may not have been awake yet. Well, this is where Twitter search but more importantly, hashtags come in. By using a common hashtag (a keyword preceded by the hash symbol) and then doing a search for that hashtag, Twitter users can have a shared conversation beyond the boundaries of their usual Twitter network.
In the case of an event like this, it is impossible to have a pre-agreed hashtag as people do for eg conferences (see ULearn10 in Christchurch this week). So instead you monitor the wider Twitter stream for a while, doing several searches, until you find common hashtags. In the initial stages you may use 2 or more hashtags, but once a dominant hashtag emerges, it is essential that you use this. If you are the provider of crucial information, eg NZ Civil Defence or a news channel, using the common hashtag is how your tweets will be findable.
The information you broadcast, your tweets, must be usable. The 140 character limit of a tweet is its strength but also its weakness. For your tweet to be usable in a crisis, it must be immediately informative in those few characters. If you want to share more, then link to a place where the rest of the information can be found. Links can become quite long (not desirable in a tweet) so you use a ‘url shortener‘ to make them an acceptable length (abt 20 characters). Most Twitter applications will do this automatically. If you do make use of links, then also make sure your tweet is an accurate description of what people will find when they click on that link. In a crisis, you don’t want to be wasting anyone’s time.
Informative #eqnz tweet by @siobhanbulfin:
One of the less usable tweets coming from the NZ Civil Defence Twitter account:
In the case of a major event the information needs to flow, it needs to spread. So you design your tweets to be easily shared. How do you do this?
- Don’t take up too much space with Twitter functionality such as your username. Of course during the event it’s too late to change your name, but if you are about to open a twitter account then consider this: @minedunz would have been 5 characters shorter than @mineducationnz.
- Use the shorter hashtag. Of course you will be driven by the prevailing hashtag, but if you get in early, then encourage the use of the shorter option.
- Use short sentences. It helps to write in the active voice, leaving out definite articles (such as ‘the’) and prefaces eg ‘Cracks in windows.’ rather than ‘There are cracks appearing in the windows”.
- Aim to make your tweet a re-tweetable length when the hashtag is included. The formula for this is: 140 characters – your twittername characters – 4. How does that work? Well 140 characters is standard length for a tweet, but when it’s retweeted, it will include the following: RT @twittername. So that would be 14 characters. However you may want to make it shorter yet to give retweeters some room to add their comments. Often done by adding eg “<- important!” or “<- wow!”. 100 characters is probably a very good length for a tweet in a crisis event to keep it shareable.
So that’s what we can keep in mind for the next earthquake or volcanic eruption, whichever comes first here in New Zealand: we should try to keep our information on Twitter findable, usable & shareable.