Around midnight on October 29, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, tweeted "Proud of Twitter right now." As well he should be. After my New York City apartment lost power around 8 p.m., my smartphone's data plan suddenly became my only connection with the outside world. I could have used any number of online resources to stay informed during Hurricane Sandy but I ended up using Twitter almost exclusively.
Twitter's microblogging format, capping tweets at 140 characters, was perfect for this type of situation. For a moment I tried tuning into a local radio station using iHeartRadio's iPhone app but quickly realized that their signal-to-noise-ratio was simply unacceptble. My precious phone battery was being wasted on reporters and meteorologists rambling on and on between important announcements. I needed something that was fast and to the point. Do I have to evacuate? Cool. Did my neighbor's building just collapse? Got it.
Twitter offered everything I needed and more. When the power went out, I quickly followed Governor Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) and Mayor Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) for the latest announcements. I also followed NY Red Cross (@redcrossny), FEMA (@fema) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (@NOAA) for helpful survival tips and general information. For some comic relief, I even followed Michael Bloomberg's Spanish-speaking alter ego Miguel Bloombito (@ElBloombito).
Even though Twitter outshines every other social network during natural disasters, it is still far from perfect. It is too easy for Mr. Internet Troll to start a rumor during a dangerous situation and for 100 Twitter users to retweet it within seconds thinking they are doing everyone else a favor. For example, the man behind the now infamous Twitter handle @ComfortablySmug may be facing criminal charges for having us believe, among other things, that the New York stock exchange was under 3 feet of water when it really wasn't.
The only way to protect yourself from untimely lies and misinformation on Twitter is to listen first and foremost to verified accounts and legitimate organizations. Tweets from the community are helpful to get a distributed feel of the situation but they have to be taken with a grain (a byte?) of salt. The truth always swims to the surface on Twitter, but the social network's self-correcting mechanism may not be fast enough during a crisis. Even with these flaws, however, I'm still amazed by the way Twitter helped me and my family during Hurricane Sandy.
Famous investor Peter Thiel once said: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." I used to agree with Mr. Thiel. I would get a kick out of poking fun at the Groupon clones and the Instagram wannabes for not doing anything meaningful for society. As I'm typing this by blog post by candlelight, waiting for ConEd to restore my power, I realize that Mr. Thiel is wrong in using Twitter as the poster boy for the basket-weaving startups. Twitter is completely different. Whether you are organizing a protest, reading up on industry news or simply trying to stay alive during a hurricane, Twitter has become the new normal for modern society.