In which Twitter tells me what my landlord can't

A mundane yet momentous tale of how the microblogging service can tell you what's going on when nobody else seems to know. But don't drink the water just because a tweet says it's safe.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
East Village Idiot blogger Chris O'Leary sounds off. Twitter

Hey, guys, news flash: Twitter is good for something.

This morning, I crawled out of bed and headed to the kitchen to make coffee, but upon turning on the faucet, I noticed that the water flowing out of it was a sketchy brown shade. Not good--especially since New York is one of those cities that prides itself on having a water purification infrastructure so advanced that you can drink right out of the tap.

My roommates weren't around. My landlord had no idea what was up. And an hour later, the water wasn't back to normal. So in an attempt to find an answer to my most important question ("When can I take a shower?"), I turned to the Web.

All things "hyperlocal" were irritating the heck out of me. I found nothing on Outside.in or its neighborhood aggregator ilk, or on city blogs like Gothamist. Consequently, I posted a Twitter message saying I thought there was rust in my tap water.

I've been on Twitter for a while, have plenty of real-life friends who use it, and as a member of the digital-media press, I've managed to amass a few thousand followers. Sometimes, I'm not sure what to do about that, why the heck they want to listen to me, or even if I want to have that many people tuned in. But as I learned this morning, it can be darned helpful when you just want to know the answer to something.

Bright lights, brown water: Manhattan's East Village Caroline McCarthy

The responses started flowing in (pun totally intended)--luckily for me, I live in a district packed full of bloggers. Toby Daniels, a digital-media dude who lives a few blocks away from me, replied that he had the same problem and that running "a whole bath's worth" of water didn't eradicate the issue.

Similar claims of mysterious brown tap water rolled in from Urlesque blogger Kelly Reeves, Dodgeball founder Dennis Crowley, Gawker Media finance guy Scott Kidder, as well as a handful of people I don't know who follow my Twitter account.

The dozen or so responses indicated that the tainted tap water had proliferated around Manhattan's East Side, with most of it in the downtown East Village, but with a few scattered claims in the Murray Hill and Upper East Side neighborhoods, further north.

One neighbor sent me a Twitter direct-message informing me that his landlord had said a water main was getting flushed out. Another response came from a woman who said she'd heard that some underground utilities work was responsible for the screwup that caused it.

Either way, within a few hours, the brown water was gone, for one reason or another. According to real-estate blog Curbed later on Thursday, this issue seems to hit the Stuyvesant Town neighborhood, due north of the East Village, every once in a while--and city authorities always assure us that it's safe to drink. Um, right.

Now I'll get to the reason for posting this boring urban anecdote to a blog that's ostensibly about social media. You'll hear the "social-media expert" types ranting a whole lot about the importance of building and maintaining an active network, a recommendation that's always seemed a bit canned and over-the-top to me (not to mention royally easy to mess up). But I'm not on Twitter to market a product or (shudder) "build a personal brand"--I'm there to keep in touch with friends and keep tabs on the industry.

Regardless, I've got to admit that having a solid pack of Twitter followers, both those I know and those I don't, helped a ton in this case, when neither my landlord nor the dozens of local blogs seemed to be saying a thing about it. And since all the digerati seem to tell us these days to "be part of the conversation" rather than just be a one-sided listener, I shot out another Twitter message thanking the random neighbors who'd passed tips along. Because I'm nice like that.

On an unrelated note: There's been plenty of media coverage concerning the emergence of Twitter as a teeming vat of citizen news in the midst of everything from natural disasters to presidential elections. But dealing with a situation involving water of questionable potability, it became pretty evident to me that the whole "Twitter as a news source" thing can be more than iffy.

Twitter doesn't have a fact-checking mechanism built in and probably never will; consequently, I wasn't about to take a "Don't worry, it's safe to drink!" message as gospel. And I hope that the hordes of starry-eyed new-media proponents who hail Twitter as an information revolution in and of itself will keep this in mind.

Oh, and New York City tap water: My confidence in you has been severely eroded. Maybe tomorrow I'll post to Twitter, asking for water filter recommendations.