I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, nothing in the mainstream media can keep pace with the social networking tool Twitter when it comes to breaking news.
If anyone need any further confirmation of that it came in the early hours of last Saturday morning when a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck just east of Christchurch, breaking the city apart, cutting power to most, and leaving hundreds of thousands of folk confused and terrified.
Twitter’s compact format, so easily accommodated by mobile phones, meant a significant proportion of the quake affected were able to remain in contact with the outside world using their handsets, all the time gleaning information crucial to their safety and wellbeing.
It was instructional to follow the media reaction. While many of those in the quake zone communicated their distress immediately over Twitter, the raw and emotive messages relayed throughout the country and all over the world, the mainstream media slept in.
Even radio was caught with its pants down, taking a full two and half hours before Radio New Zealand got its act together shortly after 7am. Television was so far behind it might have been funny, had the situation not been so serious.
Poor Mike McRoberts, TV3’s news anchor, was so frustrated by his channel’s inability to provide rolling coverage of the Christchurch disaster that he eventually took to Twitter to express his feelings. Whatever his employers felt about that, he was right.
TV One was just as slow out of the blocks, leaving viewers watching childrens’ cartoons for much of the time, before eventually getting their act into gear through the afternoon session, although much of their early photographic content was pillaged from Twitter.
But for at least the first seven or eight hours at least, Christchurch quake victims on Twitter were better informed, better resourced and better able to make good decisions than probably anyone else in the city.
Fellow tweeps from outside the quake zone were quick to post links so those in Christchurch could receive the latest updates from civil defence and emergency services.
Information on best practice was made available, warnings about specific quake-related dangers were posted, and not least, many of those in the affected area were able to make contact and arrange to assist each other.
Even when television had caught up with the story, it’s important to remember that many in the Garden City were still without power or telephone lines and had no way of making use of the excellent service eventually offered by both the main channels.
As a tweep named James on Christchurch’s eastside was telling me last week, he was without power for 34 hours, and was only able to keep up with the news and latest advisories on his phone via Twitter.
“Twitter was the first point of contact after family,” he said later. “So much information just floods in, it’s an excellent resource. For about six hours after the quake, it was the best way for me to communicate.”