Rory Cellan-Jones

Twitter and the China earthquake

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 12 May 08, 08:31 GMT

I was beginning to think Twitter - the micro-blogging service that's all the rage amongst the technorati - was just another fad for people who want to share too much of their rather dull lives. Until this morning.

When I logged on to my desktop Twitter application (sad, I know) it was alive with Tweets about the earthquake in China. Most of them were from the celebrated technology blogger Robert Scoble, who is famous, perhaps notorious, for receiving a Twitter message every second of the day.

He is based in California, but thousands of miles away from the quake he was providing breaking news about it, linking to sites like the BBC and the New York Times, even providing a first picture - though how authentic that is remains to be seen. He now claims that Twitter had the breaking news even before the United States Geological Survey, which provides early warnings of seismic events.

Let's see, as this story unfolds, whether this is the moment when Twitter comes of age as a platform which can bring faster coverage of a major news event than traditional media, while allowing participants and onlookers to share their experiences.


  • Comment number 1.

    "Twitter comes of age as a platform which can bring faster coverage of a major news event than traditional media,"

    That moment came a while ago, with Californain fires, more earthquakes, explosions and many other things. This is probably the first one that you've seen.

    I disagree with Scoble though on his statement that "It is amazing the way we can cover news on twitter. Far faster than the professionals. "

    For me there's a difference between news, which is usually a more after the fact report with some fact-checking and reflection. Twitter is immediate event reporting from eye-witnesses that reflects their perceptions - which can be wrong. (Although with an earthquake it's a bit hard to be too wrong!). The tools have different uses, Twitter is not a replacement, but it is far faster as a notification to get you looking elsewhere

    Of course, it also depends on where you are looking; this morning the BBC was fastest for me to get the info, other times it is Twitter.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm with Rachel - unverified details of breaking events are important and useful but not the same as the work of a reporter or someone we already have a relationship of trust with (NB this doesn't mean a 'professional'). Testimony matters, but we shouldn't see it as more than a starting point for understanding something.

  • Comment number 3.

    I was chatting with Robert Scoble when the quake 'hit' Twitter.

    Within minutes, not only were we getting reports of the quake, but links to images and video too.

    Robert started monitoring his 'Tweets' and then sent messages as new information became available.

    It was interesting as an example of how global communications have made the world far smaller. This kind of reporting would have been impossible until recently.

    Nice work Robert - and thanks to Rory for being a 'true geek' and being there!

    Jim Connolly

  • Comment number 4.

  • Comment number 5.

    I felt the very modest recent Lincolnshire quake all the way down here in North London and Twittered it immediately. Upon searching, I quickly found plenty more reports. All of this beat the first Five Live/Sky News reports that took a few more minutes to come through. And Twitter did indeed lead me to the USGS report of the quake.

    So Twitter can react very quickly. However, that was for something I actually experienced. Surely what Scoble was doing was providing to links to first-hand reports from established news organisations like the BBC and New York Times.

    Now if Twitter was alive with reports from residents from Sichuan then that'd be something different. But in this instance it feels no more revolutionary that someone flicking between all the 24 hour news channels until they begin picking up the story.

    Perhaps Twitter is vibrant in China - although I doubt it. Otherwise it remains a live news source in a real sense only for those areas where its users reside. Twitter wasn't much use with regard to the Burma cyclone last week for example.

  • Comment number 6.

    Regarding Adam's comment - Scoble was receiving feeds from people AND news outlets. He wasn't just repeating what was in the media - when he started reporting the quake, the media had not yet picked the story up - that's why Rory blogged about it in the first place.

    Obviously, any technology-based service is going to be limited to areas where people can access it. I have no idea how many people in Burma use Twitter - but they sure do in Egypt; where a chap recently got legal help by twittering that he had been arrested.

    Jim Connolly

  • Comment number 7.

    I first learned about Arthur C Clark's death through Twitter. And I think I learned who won the London mayoral election that way too. I don't really see Twitter as a news source but with the right friends it will deliver to you the news that interests you most. And it'll do so as quickly as your fastest interested friend can post it.

  • Comment number 8.

    It's all great that twitter is a news breaking platform, and I'm sure one day it'll prove itself.

    However, in this case MSM had picked up the story well before news broke on Twitter. As far as I can tell Scoble reported in his twitter an hour after the quake hit. Reuters had already released the story.

  • Comment number 9.

    rich115 this is absolutely NOT true. I reported the earthquake WHILE IT WAS STILL HAPPENING and minutes before the USGS web site reported it and about 30 minutes before any mainstream news reports came out (most didn't come out until after an hour). Please look into it. This was the first Tweet I did:

  • Comment number 10.

    Now Twitter is superfast global news channel.
    So we have specific news revolution.

  • Comment number 11.

    As with Adam's comment above, my first real experience of this was the UK earthquake a little while ago... it happened during the night but I was awake and saw the tweets coming in, well before any of the news channels had any information about it. Twitter is becoming the store of my attention data. Paraphrasing something Hugh Macleod has said in the past, if it's not on Twitter, he's not going to see it / respond to it. That's increasingly true.

  • Comment number 12.

    I stand corrected Scoble. You did report it on Twitter before MSM.

    My bad....UTC confusion.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'm with Robert: I re-read all the twits and the news back to early this morning to write a story about this - er, pretty similar to yours, Rory, so double pleasure to meet you :)

    I think that "who's first" is not exactly the point: "how fast, how many", and "how open" for the spontaneous collaboration is much more interesting

    I used to be the director of italian 2000-03, and we always had news about computer viruses infection. We had the internal newswire, but it was slow. So we used the e-mail: Australia, Singapore, India, we in Europe and then US... everybody was saying something, to follow the spread of the problem. But it was closed and difficult...

    Oh, if we had Twitter in those days! :D

  • Comment number 14.

    The way Twitter works is absolutely amazing. I love the quick updates one can receive on any current event. I personally don't follow Twitter for peoples daily musings but if something happens like a disaster then getting updates in just about real time from all the different members is unbeatable. Links to videos, news stories, etc. as it's unfolding is very interesting and could prove extremely useful.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    This hd me up until 5AM this morning. Great to meet everyone here. Scoble was absolutely reporting the earthquake before it showed up in any news reports. He was retweeting people's tweets as the earthquake was happening.

    I also wrote an entry about it last night at

  • Comment number 17.

    These days News Reporters aren't any better than any educated person using Twitter in reporting. They tend to report using unchecked facts and gossip they've heard. Sometimes they will even make up things as we caught AP and Reuters doing last year. They like to discount Twitter reports and bloggers as they realize that this is their new competition.

    Twitter reports and blogs permit us to see multiple views, biased and unbiased. We are no longer restricted in seeing the view of the world through only what the MSM chooses to show us.

    Thank you,


  • Comment number 18.

    Twitter also works well with crisis comm in schools. I'm a student at the Univ. of Georgia, and my roommate came into my room one night asking me if I had heard about a shooting on campus. I immediately turned to Twitter, and right away all my UGA friends were checking police scanners, the UGA Web site, the Athens police Web site and everything else. In about 10 minutes, we had concluded that it wasn't anything. There was a scuffle off campus with some Athens locals. Twitter really shows the power of people, and I am a true fan.

  • Comment number 19.

    Twitter proved its value with Burma Nargis as well as China Earthquake. I have been tracking keywords since day one and the results are simply great. Really updated every minute. Be it rumors or real news. Plus, its light weight nature is great for low-bandwidth network/countries.

    It became the fastest channel of today's media world. And again, if twitter open more API/functionalities outside, there is no doubt it will be the most used news pipline soon.

    - Wai

  • Comment number 20.

    I live in Xi'an, Shaanxi province which registered a 6+ on the Richter scale. I have also just signed up to Twitter in the last week to try and figure out what all the buzz is about.

    When the earthquake hit our first thought was to get out of the building. Once we were out and had our heads straight(only a couple of minuets later) I tried to use my phone only to find the system jammed, so there was literally no chance of getting in touch with anyone else or even to get a SMS off to twitter. It was only once we were allowed back in the building 3 hours later that I could get anything out, ironically the mobile phones and telephone systems where out but Skype and Twitter worked perfectly.

    Although I think that Twitter is good as a news reporting tool, I really find it difficult to see how it is going to break into the social mainstream in the same way facebook/myspace have. I have been telling friends and family about it this last week and no one is interested. To them it is just like a facebook status or another way of sending mass SMS.

  • Comment number 21.

    As a teacher in Chengdu Arts College, Sichuan Technology University, Chengdu, I'd like to report the Long March about my students who had walked out the death zone in earthquake.

    After 12 hours walking about 30 kilometres without any food or drink in heavy rain and wind, they escaped from death. Besides this, they helped others to escape. They are my heroes. I’d like to record this for my wonderful students to show my respect. The love is the way to life and hope.

    In anxious expectation, under the sign of Chengdu Arts College, Sichuan Technology University, applauding hands, the presidents and the other staff warmly welcomed the first group students (all girls) of the 64 students and 3 teachers in muddy clothes whom had been out to paint since last Saturday, came back at 8:45 a.m. on the 13th of May. Later, the second group (all the boys) came back at about 9:30. By then, all the students and teachers had been back completely and safely.

    The ginger soup for them to drink to protect themselves from cold is waiting on the table in dinning hall. The hot rice and delicious dishes are also waiting quietly. With tears, they had their first mouth of food after one and half days and one night. However, the long match that they walked still fresh on their hearts, escaping from hell, the destroying earthquake Qingcheng Mountain, 20 kilometers from Du Jiang Dam the almost ruined city 36 kilometers from the epicentre, Wen chuan.

    It is 11:3o on the 12th of May, in Tai an ancient town, after morning painting, they went back to Longjiale, one hostel run by local resident, to have lunch. After lunch, in the leadership of Mr. Ran, He qui and some of his classmates came back to the old look town to paint. At about 2:30, they heard of some noise like big trucks passing right besides them. By then, He Qui was at the most front. Heard of “ run”, He turned back to see and found almost all classmates were running away , leaving all the canvas and brushes and paint. Without knowing what was going on, he ran after them. Had run away less than 5 steps, he felt choking. No sooner than he had cleaned his eyes, he found the walls collapsed and the bursting breaks stayed next to his feet. The tiles fell down from the roof like raining. The cars and motorcycles next to walls were twisted in breaks and other materials. Some residents there jumped off balconies from the houses and someone rushed into the tiles and breaks’ raining to carry their old parents out. He realized that this was earthquake. He wanted to run. However, the legs got not strength.

    After the first wave, this team led by Mr. Ran came together and worried about the other two teams, as they were divided into three teams, each team with one teacher, scattered around this old town. However, the phone communication was cut off after the earthquake. As someone were painting at the waist of the mountain there, He Qui thought they might not escape from their fate. Anyhow, he and the other two students decided to look for them to assemble together later.

    As to the other two teams, some were also in the ruined town, but someone still in hostel in their sleep. Sun Ximing was there, sleeping alone in his room. When it happened, he woke up and found the books and luggage kept falling down to floor or on his body. He figured out it must be an earthquake. He rushed down, with shoes in hands. It was too late for him to get out. He had to stay under the gate. Around him, the rain of breaks and tiles and windows was going on. Outside of the raining, some people were crowding little far away. Afterwards, he knew many people jumped off this hostel and got injured badly. Time ran so slowly at this moment. At least, the ground did not quake and it seemed to be an interval. He went back to his floor to check whether anyone left there. He found 8 classmates in two rooms and led them get out of the dangerous building. Out there, they found their leading teacher, Mr. Qing, like kids found parent. They counted all the assembling students there, only 27. The bird view of the old town was disaster, everything all ruined. It looked like nobody would survive in that ruins. Coincidently, all their mobile phones happened to be cut off. Thought of the fetal disaster for their classmates, some people began to cry. Worried too much, Sun Ximing asked Mr. Qing many times to go to look for the other classmates. Considering his safty, Mr.Qing did not allow. In a difficult long time, the earthquake seemed to calm down and came to a pause. At last, Mr. Qing allowed him to go to look for the others.

    Running down from the slop, he walked anxiously over all the debris and rubbles and bits. Coming in front of a bridge, he discovered that the cement bridge had been bending down like a curve and hanging in the heavy wind. Crunched teeth, he ran over it and found nothing but ruins. Walked about one miles farther, he found the other team all hide in one low place, like a basin. Everyone got so excited to meet him. Counted, there were 37 students. He told me that he felt much more released after got the number. Thank goodness, everyone was alive.

    After short discussion, they decided to keep their position as this. As the wind blew more heavily and the sky became much darker, everyone knew a shower was coming and they sent more boys with him to go back to bring umbrellas or rain coats.

    On his way back, he ran into some students from another university, who just arrived at 11:30 this morning and whose leading teachers and another 12 students were missing after earthquake. With them, the other two teams and two teachers, from the college, in total there were almost more than 120. Exchanged the information and got to know the situation that one of them had been dead. He invited them to come with him. He said that at that moment, he thought all the survivals right then must sick together and all friends indeed.

    Then over the hanging broken bridge, he ran into some old people, who came from Chengdu University for the Old and were traveling here. He invited them to come with him. His “army” expanded once more. From these old grandpa and grandma, he got to know that when it happened, they were at the top of this mountain. They felt the entire mountain bouncing around and the roof, tiles, walls, and windows just all flied away. They hold one big tree there together. They saw some painting students there too. One student tried to jump into the river to flee away. However, he was soon buried by the rocks, earth erosion and trees. Some people were just buried in the breaks before they moved their feet to run. All the buildings were at bits like blown by tornado, no shape left but debris. All happened so fast. They had to bare seeing them dying even without giving a scream but could not give a hand-----------

    Back to the contemporary site, one open area protected by the trees around, he collected the raincoats and umbrellas to give the classmates to take back for the other part. Under the leadership of Mr. Qing, the students were building some simple tents, three bamboos and one sheet of plastic donating from the owner of the hostel. They donated their clothes for the injured people to wrap and put all the food together and then distributed them to each one including the students from other college and the old travelers, and the injured people around. They invited them to shelter in these small tents. No sooner than they finished building the tents, the heavy shower had come. After forked and branched, 8 people sharing one tents. As the tents were so small, they had to sit tightly with each other in a circle. The shower turned into heavy rain, endless. It was so cold. Companying with the enormous landslides, at least 4 times right in front of their eyes on the opposite and the next mountains, 2 times or more little further away, nobody barely slept. The waves after earthquake came back frequently, on and off, each time with heart beaten violently. It was a long, freezing and wet night.

    At 6 o’clock the morning on 13th, the teacher and students discussed and decided to self-help before the security team came over----walking out of the mountains. As one message janitor, Sun Ximing ran with the other two to go all the way to send the message to the other part. They agreed at once. Then they all packed up, following the discipline that only one back bag and to make sure two hands empty. Later the local people there brought them some porridge and steamed bread. They were so moved, because the people there got nothing left but debris. If it can be called porridge, it must because that there had 3-5 pieces of rice left at the bottom after drinking. He told me he had two big bowls of this and half bread, as the bread was not enough, one person, one half. However, that was worthy more than any meal after the cataclysm.

    As the roads to outside have already been destroyed and blocked, they had to look for the other road. Under the direction of the secretary of Wan shou (longevity) village community, they were informed of the available short cut through the mountains. Assisting with the direction from the local people and the local militia that scattered every several hundred of meters, At 8 o’clock, the big march, including students, teachers, old traveler and some people from Tai an Ancient Town set off.

    It was a long march, that had taken them 12 hours climbing and running over three big mountains before they connected to college. When some students recalled back, they could not believe that they had made it, no water or food but terror. For some students who got no umbrellas or raincoat, it was much worse.

    Under the leadership of teachers , they walked on the railway instead of road, as the running rocks and the hanging trees and the earth erosions all along it. However, the railway became some kind of pound in raining, so they had to fumble around, deep or shallow. As they reached the bus parking lot, over there, some villagers sent them boiled eggs, one person one egg, and asked them to tell people outside that they were still alive. They were moved to tears.

    Now it was time to climb up the mountains. They queued up. The first mountain was so steep. The road through it was terrible, hanging on mountains,some part eroding , underneath the roaring river. At demand, they queued up and hand in hand. Mr. Qing, a teacher who was a big fun of climbing up mountains took the first step and told them where could step on and where not. They all concentrated on 100 percent totally. As to some paths or steps, as they were too slippery or too abrupt, they were not walking over but sliding down. At some terrifying parts, the boy students shouldered the girl students and the old to pass. At some narrow parts, they saw the hanging rocks and fallen big trees. It looked like they would crush into them directly within no time.

    It came to a long slop, sharp at an angle of more than 60 degrees. It was almost 6 kilometres far. One of the students , Songming got sick ,because of scare and tiresome. On the muddy road, she barely could walk any further one more step and bad to worse her cute fragile slippers had been worn out already. Leaning on some boy students’ shoulders, she were dragged on bare feet. After a while, she could not walk any more. She refused to take shoes from anybody else and cried to try to give up. By then, He kui, one classmate, forced her to wear his only shoes and then he was barefooted. With the supports and encouragements, they got out of there.

    Crawling up or sliding down, they reached the highway. However its iron rails have been broken by the fell rocks, and it is blocked by erosions and big trees. Besides it, the overwhelming river was soaring angrily. They had to go through the small little suspension wood bridge over it, with two ends tied with iron wires on the big rocks, waving to the left and to the right in the heavy wind, while the river underneath was screaming hysterically like an avalanche. The teachers make a quick survey and decided two people once together to run over in case it would collapse at any time. As one pair and one pair ran over, Mr. Ran could not get Songjing on the bridge. At that time, He qui told Mr. Ran that he would be responsible for her. Trying to persuading without effect, he forced to carry her on his back to cross the waving wooden bridge. As he reached the opposite and put her down, he found she had already been faint and unconscious because of terror. From then on, each boy students carried her on their back to march.

    As they crossed the suspension bridge, they ran into more people coming in for looking for their family members and some militia. They were very kind and informed of the condition of the road ahead, where needs running as soon as possible and where needs watching before running as the landslips were happening all the time on the mountains along it. After disastrous earthquake and heavy raining, many parts of mountains have been suspending and with each more slight wave or more raining, they might roll down at not time. Facing the places, they watched, waited and rushed to pass. Afterwards, as some students recalled and counted that during the 12 hours long march, at least, they had been running for 4 hours. Luckily as they ran out of the road, they ran into one ambulance, from which Songming get some glucose and got sense back. Still boys carried her on back in turn. Along the road, they could see the corpse burying in the rocks and mud that dyed with blood. They felt so sorry and determined to make sure everyone in this big team all survived.

    Another thing here that I’d like to mention was that at someplace besides the road, there was a big grocery shop, window smashed, house broken and owner fled. Although they were so hungry and thirsty, they did not put one finger on it, as they thought the boss had already been suffered and bankrupt, they could not make him much worse.

    After another 7 kilometers hard marching, they arrived at the back sides of Qingchen Mountain. There they saw three other college’s campus buses waited there. The students who joined them before got on their buses without saying anything and zoomed off. My students told me that it might be sad as they just lost one and someone’s life else unclearly or too tired to speak anything after such a long much. For them, they had to measure the roads by their feet.

    Another 9 kilometres’ walking from the back side of Qingchen Mountain to Da guan Town became more and more difficult, like walking for ages but still endless. Their legs had already become numb. They were hobbling and limping. As some tricycles past by, some got on , 40 RMB. Per 6 people for the next 7 kilometres. The surplus had to hobble to Da guan city.

    As they arrived at Da guan City, their mobile phones got react after all the way trying. The peeps of the messages that arrived and the sign for the untaken phones filled the whole screen. For a moment, they were reading all these warm messages from family, friends, each word warming heart. Even the sentence that “have you been dead? Are you still alive?”made them all tearing. They said that by then, they felt collapsing inside and the tears flooding out, although they had not shed any drop of tear during this long march. “ mother , father, I am still alive” that was all they could say. Crying covered anything else. At that moment, the anxious staff of college also got their call and released and some cried after such a long wait. They immediately dispatched the bus to fetch them at the best speed.

    By then, they have walked about 30 kilometres during 12 hours, no food or drink.

    When I visited them this afternoon after they had a rest in their contemporary shelters, some students were playing around like children and someone were chatting on the phones. As to their sleep, most of them told me that they could barely sleep, although being too tired. Their legs were sore and some still got no feeling except numb.

    All above all, they felt lucky after escaping from death. As I asked them about what they felt after all this, they told me it was the support, friendship ,the teamwork and the determination that no one less that sustained them to get out and they would treasure the friendship forever. Furthermore, they have learned one very important lesson of life.

  • Comment number 22.

    We are trying to find out information about our partner school Nanshan Middle School in Mianyang City, Sichuan Province. Our school is twinned with this school - we have made friends with many teachers and students over the years. We have not heard anything from any of the teachers or students and we are very worried about them. Our school is William Bradford Community College - if you know of anything I hope you can reply.

  • Comment number 23.

    saw the video on the plastic milk bag today. The big news of milk in a bag that the supermarket is portraying you is very old news. I remember 30 years ago milk in a bag . This was being trialed in County Tipperary in Ireland. I came across it in my Grannies house. Talk about technolgy, she did not have running water but she did have milk in a bag. I had the pleasure of seeing a far better and simpler piece of equipment to hold the milk bag. But of course the problem is that it was still a bit messy. Just shows though what goes around comes around.

  • Comment number 24.

    1st Tweets Timeline ~ Sichuan China earthquake...

  • Comment number 25.

    i would of thought Apple can withstand the credit crunch.

  • Comment number 26.

    I have walked my dog shadow in the fields and saw loads of different kinds of birds.

  • Comment number 27.

    I am a supporter of the Change for LIfe Campaign that the My council is doing for the us all to get healther and fitter. Dudley listen to our concerns.

  • Comment number 28.

    I think Brittanica is brilliant for their idea for everyone to use and it is a great source of information.

  • Comment number 29.

    I am now seriously worried
    President Obama has a great voice, wonderful leader probably, but i fear he has just put a very very large stick in a very large hornets nest (north Korea) then China then wel......

    Very worried

  • Comment number 30.

    reporters will definately be out of a job soon as news becomes more condensed, filterable and comodified. instead we'll need good editors and researchers to verify 'tweats' but even then being able to respond to a tweat will need to be exceptionally quick.

    maybe i should start or something and begin the news revolution.


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