The Chinese earthquake and Twitter – crowdsourcing without managers

There’s been an earthquake in China, and the Twittersphere is alive with it. I’m going to write a post on this and keep adding to it through the next hour or so. Let me know anything interesting you’ve spotted @paulbradshaw

The first interesting point is Tweetburner: its most-clicked links shared on Twitter are almost entirely about the earthquake, and show some interesting uses:

China Earthquake tweets on Tweetburner

  1. A Google map of the earthquake location
  2. A BBC blog post about Twitter coverage of the earthquake
  3. A Twitter user’s tweet about experiencing the earthquake (in Shanghai)
  4. A Google translation from Chinese to English of tweets from Twitterlocal
  5. The Earthquake Center’s page on the earthquake
  6. CNN’s report
  7. A picture which appears to be capturing the earthquake in an office
  8. A Summize search for ‘earthquake’

Here is crowdsourcing without the editorial management. How quickly otherwise would a journalist have thought of using Twitterlocal with a Google translation? And how soon before someone improves it so it only pulls tweets with the word ‘earthquake’, or more specific to the region affected? (It also emphasises the need for newspapers and broadcasters to have programmers on the team who could do this quickly)

How quickly would a journalist have found someone who speaks English and was affected by the quake? Or an image? (Of course, this needs verifying, but sourcing has already begun)

AlphaTwitter shows some of the same results but also included a video of someone experiencing tremors 950 miles away in Beijing, a Chinese language report (including that picture mentioned above) and an English language Chinese media report. Tweetmeme showed the same links as Tweetburner.

Twitt(url)y and Hashtags, meanwhile, both appeared to be down. And Intwition picked the worst possible time to pause their service for changes.

Twitter coverage of the earthquake

Robert Scoble was following proceedings on his much-followed Twitter, and feeding back information from his followers, including, for instance (after he tweeted the fact that Tweetscan was struggling) that people were saying Summize was the best tool to use.

If you followed the conversation through Scoble using Quotably, you could then find Gregg Scott, who in turn was talking to RedChina, Karoli, mmsullivan, and inwalkedbud who was in Chengdu, China (also there was Casperodj and Lyrrael).

If you wanted to check out inwalkedbud you could do so using Tweetstats and find he has been twittering since December. Sadly the Internet Archive doesn’t bring any results, though.

The mainstream media had differing reports: RTE (Ireland) said “No major damage after China earthquake” – but UK’s Sky News reported four children killed and over 100 injured; Chinaview (China) said no buildings had collapsed – but an Australian newspaper said they had.

Interestingly, Chinaview was slow loading, presumably because of excessive demand from users – another reason Twitter, with its 140 character minimalism, should in theory prove more useful during a major news event. I say in theory because Twitter is not as reliable as it should be.

World Wide Help, a blog set up following the Asian tsunami, started liveblogging it.

And perhaps the best coverage came from Shanghaiist, which also liveblogged it, including an image, links to twitter tweets, radio reports, Google Maps and video (many of these the same as listed above – it’s hard to tell whether they got their links from Twitter or vice versa).

Interestingly, their latest update as I type is UPDATE 30, 5:32pm: Not confirmed, but from reliable source: “Propaganda dept has banned news outlets from sending own teams. All stories have to be from Xinhua.” Anyone have more details?

From The Frontline recorded how they had used Twitter to follow events, and concluded the time for debate on the usefulness of Twitter is over. Well, of course.

It also brings up debates about the role of journalists in a networked age – given that I could follow the story (conversation) from an office in Birmingham UK, but mainly because I knew the right tools to do so, how does that affect the journalist’s role? I’d answer that firstly they need to know the tools (including those of verification), and secondly they need to be in the conversations already. What’s your excuse?

UPDATE: In another demonstration of the importance of being in the conversation, this blog post was linked to by Robert Scoble, generating a pingback (notification of a link), which made me read his blog post, which then led me to Global Voices Online’s links to videos and other Twitter and blog reports (this is why journalists should be blogging). They link to a non-English summize search for, presumably, ‘earthquake’. Another key point:

Many are writing of difficulties connecting to those at the center of the quake zone over telephone, but the internet seems to still be functioning. Beijing-based tech guru Kaiser Kuo writes that the government Earthquake Bureau website is currently inaccessible, presumably from high levels of traffic.”

UPDATE: Mathew Ingram adds:

“People can post messages about whatever they wish, rather than answering only the questions that a producer asks them, and they can add links to blog posts, photos, maps and video. In the study I wrote about recently that looked at Twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia as disaster reporting tools, one of the comments about the California fires was that the media focused on celebrities and how they were affected, but Twitter and other sources gave a more complete version of events and how they were affecting everyone.”

From Better Living Through Software:

“It’s silly in the extreme to act like twitter is somehow breaking news, though. Masses of people within China found out about the earthquake as it was happening via messages from friends on QQ (which is massively more popular than twitter), and CCTV carried the news almost instantly. I suppose it’s cute that some English-speaking expats using echo-chamber technology were able to *also* report the event on twitter, but even the tweetscan example seems a bit lame to me. When I search for tweets with the word “地震”, tweetscan gives me nothing — apparently tweetscan doesn’t care about Chinese. Perhaps this explains why Scoble and BBC are reporting only English tweets from China.”

UPDATE: Two more blog posts worth reading for their balanced effect. Firstly, the Daily Kos has a post that gives an overview of online coverage in both English and Chinese, including a link to the QQ Earthquake video page. Digital Watch talks of the hubris of those hyping the role of Twitter in coverage:

“Twitter’s immediacy was nice, but by no means unique. The whole time I was twittering, my wife was on her instant messengers, with both QQ and MSN Live open. She was also monitoring all the portals’ news flashes on the quake. I didn’t feel like I had any more information than she did

“Twitter’s public nature was of some real value both for ordinary folk and for professional journalists, who were able to quickly identify English-speakers on the scene who could be interviewed. The broadcast nature of Twitter, while it can bore one to tears when used to gratuitously announce one’s pedestrian comings and goings, was in this case something that made it better than simple IM.

“The other dimension to Twitter that proved very useful in this case was its global usership: there were lots of Chinese messages I was following, and I was among many people bilingual individuals translating more useful, insightful, or interesting tweets from Chinese into English. Call it “bridge microblogging.””


92 thoughts on “The Chinese earthquake and Twitter – crowdsourcing without managers

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  13. paulbradshaw Post author

    @Ien (comment 9): the USGS webpage was no.3 on the top ten links being shared on twitter (5 on my numbered list), so yes, that stuff showed up.

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  19. Andy T

    “crowdsourcing without managers”
    I don’t think that it is an issue. The news story should be judge by yourself, find out by yourself.
    “crowdsourcing without managers” is better that directed stories and official stories.

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  49. ride on mower

    Here is crowdsourcing without the editorial management. How quickly otherwise would a journalist have thought of using Twitterlocal with a Google translation? And how soon before someone improves it so it only pulls tweets with the word ‘earthquake’, or more specific to the region affected? (It also emphasises the need for newspapers and broadcasters to have programmers on the team who could do this quickly) Thanks folks.

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  52. Ride on mowers

    The fact is that Twitter became lately a source for real time data, remember that guy that called the police by using Twitter instead of calling 911? That guy is one optimist dude. However, I don’t think it will go further that this, I mean Ok with the news as long as you trust the internet as a reliable source of data, but not more…

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