If Iran's post-election uprising last summer was the world's first "Twitter revolution," the massive Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti was the first "Twitter disaster." In a sign of how much the media landscape has changed since the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Twitter users around the world quickly turned to the massively popular microblogging site to read the latest news, express their sympathy, and learn how to help. Haiti quickly became the site's top "trending topic," edging out such favorites as #TeamConan and #nowTHATSghetto.
In an effort to catch the wave, established media sources like the News York Times and CNN used Twitter's new list feature to set up aggregator feeds featuring the latest updates from the ground in Haiti. The tweeting fever did not let up in the days that followed. On Wednesday Jan. 20, more than a week after the original quake, a rush of Twitter activity following news of new aftershocks in Port-au-Prince actually shut down the site.
It's clear that Twitter became a portal for people looking to connect about the tragedy -- just click the #Haiti hashtag and then refresh after three seconds if you don't believe me. But did Twitter actually replace other, more old-school media as a means for staying informed about events on the ground?
Unsurprisingly, instead of offering news, the vast majority of Haiti-related tweets seem to consist of either expressions of personal sympathy for the victims of the quake or links to news articles from other sites. Foreign reporters, including CNN's Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta, tweeted their impressions, but these were more of a supplement to their coverage than actual works of reporting. Foundations like Doctors Without Borders and CARE provided Twitter updates on their efforts, but these were of little interest to those not directly involved in the relief effort -- who presumably had more reliable sources of information anyway.
Then there was the dark side. False rumors quickly began to spread on Twitter about relief initiatives that didn't exist. A Twitter message stating that UPS was shipping free to Haiti and another that U.S. airlines were flying doctors to the country for free -- when in fact, the country was completely closed to commercial flights in the days following the earthquake -- led those companies to be deluged with phone calls and requests they couldn't answer.
Twitter can occasionally be an effective means of organization -- Tweets played a role in the online campaign to pressure the U.S. Air Force into opening the Port-au-Prince airport to aid flights -- but they can just as often lead well-meaning readers astray, particularly when there's celebrity involved. Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean quickly became one of the most popular Haiti-tweeters as he traveled to his home country to help with the relief effort and urged readers to donate to his Yele Foundation. (#Yele was a top trending topic in the immediate aftermath of the quake.) But concerns were quickly raised over the foundation's financial irregularities and ability to deal with a problem the size of the earthquake. Many in the development community resented that Jean's group was diverting funds away from groups better equipped to respond.
In fact, though it's often said that new technologies like Twitter can empower individuals to communicate directly to a large audience, those who seemed to be benefiting most from it during this crisis were mainstream news outlets, who have the manpower to pick out the decent information from Twitter for more discerning readers; foundations and charities looking to raise money, whether deserving or not; and government agencies publicizing their own efforts.
If anything, the few tweets resembling news -- generated by genuinely engaged tweeters like musician Richard Morse or the New York Times' Damien Cave -- only pointed out the limitations of Twitter as a news medium. A tweet like Cave's "Navy helicopters circling the embassy now. More military on the way. Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti -- different, but all nation building?" is more of a teaser for his articles than an informative statement. Is there value in readers in the United States and Europe knowing that a particular store in downtown Port-au-Prince had been ransacked or a particular building in Jacmel had collapsed rather than waiting for a more comprehensive roundup of these events in the Times or on CNN?
In the past two decades, the news cycle has gone from the daily updates of newspapers to the up-to-the-minute coverage of cable news and the blogosphere to the up-to-the second updates of Twitter. It's possible that we may have reached a point where information is being provided faster than users can process it, and the "news" ceases to inform at all.