This morning at 4.35am I woke up, not quite sure why. But I was wide awake, so I picked up my iPhone and immediately saw a tweet from @kalena: Earthquake!!! So that was what had woken me up. This in itself is not surprising in NZ where we have over 1400 earthquakes a year, about 150 felt by people. But being an immigrant to this country, I get excited about these things and so I went to check the Geonet site. And then I saw the magnitude: 7.4 and not in Wellington or here in the Hawke’s Bay, where we are used to regular earthquakes with magnitude 3-4, and so possibly prepared. But in Christchurch. This was big…
Picture from the Geonet Science site
I returned to the Twitterstream which had now exploded with tweets mentioning “new zealand”, “earthquake” and “christchurch”. And pretty soon the first hashtags started forming: #earthquake, #quakenz, #nzquake, #nz, #christchurch and combinations of these. And of course there was the inevitable question after Indonesia, would there be a #tsunami? By around 5am one hashtag began emerging: #eqnz. Here are the earliest mentions I could find by @noirbp and @rougebp in the Twapperkeeper archive I created for #eqnz:
Why did the #eqnz hashtag prevail?
- It was short, 5 characters (only 1/28th of a 140 tweet).
- It was descriptive, eq= earthquake, nz=specifying its location New Zealand, at a time when it was not quite clear where exactly the epicentre had been.
- This made it an easy tag to remember
- And quick to type,
- It was being used enough by the people who were tweeting at the time to attain critical mass,
- And initially those people used multiple tags in their tweets, to cross-pollinate the different tag streams.
This critical mass was further encouraged as the more expert Twitter users realised that the only way to effectively pool information in a Twitter conversation is to have one (1!) hashtag. And they began gently coaxing other users in to using the #eqnz hashtag. Often this is called the ‘official hashtag’ even though it is not in any way endorsed by an authority…
Why the #christchurchquake tag failed
Then at around 6am, out of nowhere, came a new tag: #christchurchquake. It was used by@mrsgooding and @fmcampers for a few tweets, but then adopted at 6am by the official twitter account for NZ’s Civil Defence authority: @nzcivildefence. This account is followed by 2,800+ followers and so could weigh in as an official, regularly updated source of information. Unfortunately the account seems to be run by a bot, and is updated only hourly with information from the website.
Why it failed?
- At 18 characters, it was way too long. It takes up 1/8 of a tweet. Even #ccquake would have been better,
- It takes too long to type, particularly if you are submitting your tweets via a mobile phone,
- It came too late, after other tags were already established
- Not many people outside of New Zealand know where or what Christchurch is,
- It wasn’t being promoted often enough, the Civil Defence only using it once an hour.
So who decides the hashtag for an event?
Well from the evidence of today, it seems it’s not just those who are first to the party that decide the hashtags, and not even the officially invited guests, but those who stay at the party and mingle a lot in an easy manner.
How do you participate?
What can you do as a civil authority, service provider, tv station or newspaper to ensure you are a contributing and consuming part of the information stream by using the ‘correct’ or at least prevailing hashtag or hashtags?
- Make this someone’s job
- Ensure that person is an avid twitter/social media user and understands its dynamics
- Don’t just let this person broadcast. Also let them read, listen and respond during the crisis…
- See whether there is a tag already trending for your crisis (a few Twitter searches will tell) and use that
- If there is a clash of hashtags and you have the clout, try to force a decision (can only be done if you are actively involved in the stream and are perceived as having some authority)
- Who is tweeting a lot? Who is influencing the twitterstream? Listen & respond to these people
- Build up your Twitter following during non-crisis times, again not just in a broadcast capacity. Ensure you are already connected to major Twitter players in your geographical and specialist area.
Here’s an example of the NZ Herald twitter account beginning to us its ‘clout’ around 10am (5 hours into the event) and choosing a hashtag. They are now using #eqnz.
Earthquake New Zealand Hashtag Wars: Who Won?
As of 3pm, the score stood at #eqnz: 6847 tweets v #christchurchquake: 502 tweets. Oh and we’re still not trending worldwide on Twitter. That honour goes to Duke Nukem and #camprock2…