Social media travels faster than seismic waves

The earthquake on Aug. 23 shook people from their office chairs and made them wonder what was happening. Almost immediately afterward too, people flooded onto Twitter to ask if anyone else had felt the ground move and to post their personal stories to millions of others.

“Think we just had an earthquake or something in [Crystal City, Va.]. All the bldgs shaking,” Mary Davie, assistant commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Office of Integrated Technology Services, tweeted at 1:57 p.m.

A rare magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck the National Capital area at 1:51 p.m. and traveled up the East Coast. It caused moderate shaking that was felt throughout Northern Virginia and nearby areas.


Related story:

Rare earthquake shakes up D.C. federal buildings


Sites such as Twitter and Facebook played an important role in how people reacted to the earthquake, Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Aug. 24 during a conference call.

In that potentially disastrous situation, social media filled a pressing need.

“Lots of people were reaching for their BlackBerrys and couldn’t get dial tones. But they were still getting their e-mails, and they could text,” he said. He received a text from his wife and mother-in-law, who were in Washington D.C. at the time, to say they were fine. Fugate then updated his Facebook page to let other family know that they were okay.

People texted and used social media to keep in contact instead of calling on their cell phones, which overwhelms a network, Fugate said.

More than that though, Twitter was the go-to website for breaking news.

“It was my primary news source” during the earthquake, said Josh Sawislak, a senior fellow at the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that studies Telework.

As Twitter overflowed, it sent the news out quickly. New Yorkers may have read about the earthquake before they felt it, according to BetaNews, which found a tweet sent at 1:52 p.m., just seconds after the earth shifted in Virginia.

It was sent soon enough that it beat the seismic waves up the coast.

“I saw the tweets from DC about earthquake, then 15 seconds later felt it in NYC. Social media is faster than seismic waves!” JesseCFriedman tweeted on Aug. 23 at 2:06 p.m.

But soon after the initial tweets, the jokes began. Some tweeted that the debt ceiling had fallen. And a picture of the devastation from the quake was a plastic lawn chair that had been knocked over. Even Californians teased those on the East Coast about their reaction to what many out West said was a minor quake.

“We eat 5.8 earthquakes for breakfast,” one Twitterer wrote.

In a comic strip, a cartoonist may have pointed out a problem for people who go quickly to Twitter in dangerous situations.

“Sadly, a Twitterer’s first instinct is not to find shelter.”

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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