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Faster Than a Speeding Earthquake

August 24, 2011

Brad Svrluga

I was sitting in my office at 20th and Broadway yesterday at 1:53PM when I saw a Tweet pop up from my brother (@barrysvrluga), who is a sportswriter at the Washington Post. His Tweet, sent from Washington Redskins training camp, said:

Um, so, we just experienced an earthquake at #Redskins Park.

“Holy sh@#,” I thought. “An earthquake in DC? That’s crazy!” I picked up my phone and started to call him when, maybe 30 seconds after his Tweet popped up, the building began to sway back and forth like a boat rolling on mid-sized waves. The earthquake had hit New York.

Normally, I would have first thought that there was some sort of construction going on that was shaking the building. But knowing it was felt in DC, my mind went immediately to an earthquake, which is not something we think about in NYC every day. So then what was my first reaction? I Tweeted the following, also time-stamped 1:53PM:

woah – earthquake in NYC moments after seeing tweet about earthquake in DC!

And then I searched “earthquake NYC” on Twitter to see what else I could learn. I instantly found maybe a dozen results, then quickly it was dozens, and then hundreds. Clearly I wasn’t crazy.

A few more seconds of searching and I found Tweets reporting folks feeling the quake in North Carolina, Boston, and Cleveland.   And a few moments later, someone had a report from the USGS that the quake measured 5.8 and was centered in Virgina.

By 1:57PM, less than 4 minutes after the quake rumbled through NYC, Twitter had told me that (a) there was an earthquake on the east coast, (b) how big it was and where it was centered, (c) how far from the center it was felt, and (d) that there didn’t appear to be any reports of major damage or harm.

Somewhere around 2:10PM, at least 15 minutes after I felt it, the CNN.com page put up a Breaking Story alert above the rest of their news saying that a 5.8 magnitude quake had hit Virginia. I stopped checking around 2:20, and they still offered no further details.

All this prompts a handful of observations:

First off, It’s really freakin’ amazing that Twitter carried news of the earthquake the 280 miles from Mineral, VA to NY faster than the actual quake traveled.  Maybe I’m just geeking out too much here, but when you really stop and think about it, isn’t that unbelievable? Both technically – a little human interaction plus some simple technology beat this massive force of nature; but also in what it says about how Twitter has impacted human behavior. The first reaction upon feeling the quake of my brother, and then me, and then thousands of others was to pull out some sort of device and Tweet.

Gee, do ya really think this Twitter thing is gonna be important?

Second, this behavior is in many ways worse news for traditional web media (CNN.com, HuffPo, etc.) than it is for traditional regular media (print, TV, etc.). In just a few minutes of searching I had enough information, albeit unverified, that I could’ve written a quick Breaking News story. Yes, almost all of those Tweets were from otherwise unreliable sources, but there was enough volume, fast enough after the event, from enough different places, that it looked pretty damn reliable. As a result, I never went back to CNN.com or anywhere else to read their full stories. Where web news properties had previously been my source for real time news, that is no longer the case. I had the information I needed in the moment, and so I went back to work.

Late last night I watched a few minutes of CNN and got a broader story. This morning I heard/read some more reports from NPR and the NYTimes. Looking at my behavior, traditional media didn’t get hurt at all by Twitter inserting itself into the landscape as the go to provider for real time news – I used them for the same things I used them for a year ago. But how many readers, and how many ad impressions, were sucked away by Twitter from CNN.com and the like in the moments immediately after the fact? It must’ve been a ton.

Third, while initially I thought “man, this is huge for Twitter’s business!,” I think that’s somewhat limited in it’s truth. It’s no doubt a massively powerful illustration of Twitter’s impact, but I don’t know that this sort of behavior is specifically helpful to them from a business model standpoint.

It’s hard to directly monetize this kind of burst of activity in any premium way. To get super-premium ad buys you need to offer advertisers highly targeted audiences who are expressing meaningful purchase intent (think KitchenRemodeling.com) or broad audiences around high profile events (Super Bowl or Oscars TV ads). Things like earthquakes are neither, so offer advertisers nothing better than any other collection of traffic. That said, I would think the folks at Twitter must be working hard to construct revenue opportunities around more predictable spikes like the winning goal at the 2010 World Cup Final, which at the time set a new record for Tweet volume and consumption.

I’m also sure that yesterday’s event, and the effectiveness of Twitter at spreading valuable information will, as the events of the Arab Spring did before the quake, lead more and more people to turn to Twitter first in the future. And that, most certainly, will drive new users, higher levels of activity, and ultimately, much more revenue.

So congrats once again to the folks at the corner of Folsom & 4th in San Francisco. You’re changing the world for the better. But please, be careful not to completely destroy the news media. My brother the print writer still needs to feed his sweet little daughter.

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