Social Media & the Haiti Disaster: Thumbs Up for Twitter

NBC Today news anchor Ann Curry was especially bullish about the use of Twitter during the Social Media & the Haiti Disaster panel at The New York Times Building in New York, part of Social Media Week 2010, but the microblogging service fared well with the other panelists and with moderator Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and senior technology advisor for The Sunlight Foundation.

Curry said about Twitter:

Twitter is teaching people the power of information.

I think Twitter is everything. I don’t know that we want to limit it to be one thing. Twitter is an opportunity for people to be silly, to be rude, to connect on issues of fascination, food, whatever, but it’s also a rising tool of communication. It’s really not about someone deciding what Twitter should be: It’s about the people who use Twitter deciding what they want it to be.

I think to say the power of Twitter has been misunderstood is an understatement. I think many people in traditional journalism have misunderstood the power of Twitter. I think that’s changing. Why would you dismiss or limit any opportunity to report information that can be useful directly to people? Why would you not want to play in that playground, in that sandbox?

It’s a humbling experience, in many ways, to be a so-called traditional journalist on Twitter. You’re reminded of how informed people are.

Speaking of the many requests she received via Twitter for help with specific situations in Haiti in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake there, Curry added:

I’ve really noticed, in the Twitter community, a real wish to serve. It is unbelievable the retweets that happen. It became overwhelming. There were so many of them that it was impossible to respond to all of them. A couple of these tweets have kept me up wondering, “How do I handle this?”

Rasiej backed the microblogging service, as well, occasionally referencing Sept. 11. He said:

Twitter has become a new infrastructure for emergency communications. After Sept. 11, people used BlackBerries. I can’t imagine what Twitter would have been like on Sept. 11.

As far as journalists using Twitter and whether it can serve as a reliable source of information, he added:

Most journalists think of themselves as journalists and they don’t really consider themselves to be information hounds or purveyors of information. Veracity gets better over time because there are more and more eyeballs looking at it.

Rob Mackey, a staff writer for The New York Times and main writer of its breaking-news blog, The Lede, was a little more cautious, but overall, supportive of Twitter, as well.

Mackey said:

To some extent, users of the network are starting to understand the difference between passing on other things that they’ve heard and things that they’ve witnessed. With us, it changed very dramatically after the Iran crisis and the elections there. There does seem to be, maybe even more so on Twitter than on the wider Web, a degree of trust.

I would think eventually we’re going to run into a situation where something that seems real and seems to check out will be fake. Twitter seems to be somewhat related to what’s on television.

And Doctors Without Borders communications director Jason Cone, who spoke during the panel of the progress his humanitarian association was able to make largely due to contacting Curry via Twitter, said of using the microblogging service during the crisis in Haiti:

This event has been a game-changer in the way we think of social networks and their applications for the work Doctors Without Borders does. It’s a means for us to maintain a dialog in many ways.