Social media use in a crisis – #eqnz – which hashtag prevails?

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…

Seismic Drum near Christchurch

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:

Earliest mentions of #eqnz tag

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…

Encouraging the use of one hashtag #eqnz

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.

NZ Civil Defence run an odd Twitter account

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.

NZ Herald adopts the #eqnz hashtag

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…

#eqnz still not trending at 5pm

twitter hashtag wars: #eqnz (3pm)

twitter hashtag wars: #christchurchquake (3pm)

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13 thoughts on “Social media use in a crisis – #eqnz – which hashtag prevails?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paulo Simões, Joyce Seitzinger, Kristina DC Hoeppner, kat, Team BLACKTIDE. and others. Team BLACKTIDE. said: Team #blacktide AGAIN Thank you Social media use in a crisis – #eqnz – which hashtag prevails? quotes: @noirbp @rougebp […]

  2. @Comment8tor says:

    Superb advice and guidance – should be required reading for anyone involved in crisis communication and issue management. Thanks heaps.

  3. […] Twitter to work, everyone has to agree on a hashtag, like #eqnz. Joyce was tracking the clumsy “hashtag wars” different media outlets were fighting. Some people pointed out the […]

  4. Brad says:

    Great post. Enjoyed reading this and was pro-active in its approach rather than griping that people are not doing it right :)

  5. Easegill says:

    Great piece, Joyce. I like the analysis of tag development in this case.
    There is another piece of social media that I don’t think’s been used effectively here and that is Google Maps. I’ve come across a couple of maps that people have created showing where the aftershocks were or where some damage had occurred. Neither are editable so no one else can add to them. If they were, then a much richer resource could develop, with more locations, more detail, attached pics, etc. Maps could also have been used by Civil Defence or Environment Canterbury to collect and disseminate relevant info such as road closures, water contamination, likely return time of services, etc.
    Best, N

  6. Steve says:

    I thought it had another side to it: civil defence and red cross were using #christchurchquake, while the rest of NZ(it seemed) were using #eqnz the benefit: it separated out “official” info which would have been lost in the firehose of messages of goodwill, thoughts about earthquakes, and other non critical stuff on #eqnz (or worse, false or misheard information). It’s like CB radio, a band is reserved for official broadcasts, except it was a crowd-driven phenomenon.

  7. […] Social media use in a crisis – #eqnz – which hashtag prevails … […]

  8. Joyce Seitzinger says:

    Hey Steve, thanks for your comment and helping me think through this. I’m not sure that that was the intention, although it seemed another hashtag #eqchch did pop up for a while as the tag for ‘official communications’ for authorities and media outlets. Not sure who started that and it seemed shortlived as well. I will be looking into that one too. At any rate, the length of the #christchurchquake tag made it unwieldy, particularly for mobile users.

    I think what I’ve learned from this is that it’s difficult to compare the use of a hashtag to that of a separate channel. I think that the Twitter account itself, is the closest you can come to an official channel. What happens after that with the information you’ve broadcast through that channel, is out of your hands. Users will retweet and rehash your message, much more easily than with a tv or radio broadcast. And it is unlikely that users will be conscientious enough to retweet yr message, but stop to strip out the official hashtag if they’ve changed the message beyond recognition and aren’t an official authority. Particularly when RT-ing in most clients is just a tap of one button.

    It’s all very good food for thought..

  9. […] 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 […]

  10. […] has also contributed superb pieces on the importance and use of Twitter hashtags and how to make the most of social media in a crisis. Both required reading, I’d suggest, for any […]

  11. Wolf says:

    on my blog I did a social media timeline for the christchurch quake

    took only 58 seconds after the quake before the #eqnz tag was used, as the precedent had been set pior.

  12. Great post, Joyce. I’m going to store this away as I look at how midwives can use social media in the times of international disasters:

  13. […] 30 minutes the #eqnz hashtag was established as the main hashtag. It remains in place today (three years later) as an active community by those affected by the […]

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