Some might write off the blathering masses on Twitter, but those Internet luddites might change their tune during a storm. As we saw with Tropical Depression Isaac (weakened from tropical storm status, and hurricane before that)as it raged over the Gulf Coast, many in the path of a natural disaster turn to Twitter to get news quicker than they could on TV, radio or traditional news websites.
So how can an average citizen in the cross-hairs of a hurricane or other natural disaster propagate an urgent message to as many people as possible? A trio of Chinese researchers may have some answers.
In a paper recently published in the journal Internet Research, a group from Beijing University looked at the factors associated with how frequently messages were re-shared on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter, during a May 2010 earthquake and an August 2010 mudslide in the country.
Based on their findings (and a bit of our own intuition), here's how to best spread a message on Twitter in an emergency situation.
Forget the links. Usually, the more information you provide online, the better. When you're confined to 140 characters or less, a link to an outside site is often the only way to say everything you want. In non-disaster scenarios, 57 percent of retweets contain links to websites outside Twitter, according to research by social media scientist Dan Zarrella. But during a crisis, link-laden tweets get shared less frequently, the Chinese researchers found.
Why? Well, if you've never been in one, imagine what a disaster situation is like on Twitter. Your stream is taken over by the event. You're looking for the latest update about where it's safe to go out, when the rain will stop and so on. Someone in that situation might assume that a link will take them to a page that gives information they already know, the researchers argue. That, or those facing disaster scenarios simply don't have time to click.
But don't forget photo. A picture is worth 1,000 tweets (give or take), especially during a crisis. The researchers found that tweets with a photo, video or audio were shared significantly more than tweets with just text during a disaster. This makes sense: People want to know what the scene looks like on the ground. Isn't it better to see an approaching storm cloud than just read a 140-character message about it?
And remember to hashtag. When messages flood into Twitter during, say, a flood, individual tweets can easily get buried in people's streams. To make sure your urgent message about what's happening around you gets to the right people, make sure to find and include the relevant hashtags. For example, one of the simplest and most commonly used hashtags for the weather event formerly known as Hurricane Isaac: #isaac.
[h/t to ReadWriteWeb for pointing about the study]