Turning to Twitter after China quake

Microblogging service gets lit up with first-, second-, third- and many-hand information about various personal experiences, and hundreds of links to other reports.

Graham Webster
Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Graham Webster
2 min read

Editors' note: this post has been updated to reflect a new magnitude given to the earthquake. Although the earthquake was initially rated as a 7.8 magnitude, the U.S. Geological Survey updated it to 7.9 after a further review of the data.

The loss of life and damage in many cities in and around China's Sichuan province continues to grow after a 7.9 earthquake hit about 55 miles from the major city of Chengdu at 2:28 p.m. local time on Monday.

I live in Beijing, which is about 950 miles from the epicenter. Along with others, I first learned of the quake via Twitter, which has been lit up with first-, second-, third-, and many-hand information about various personal experiences, and hundreds of links to other reports. By contrast, mainstream media such as Sohu.com were partially responsible for a massive rumor mill that pervaded Beijing on Monday evening, with an apparently incorrect prediction of a quake in Beijing between 11:00 p.m. and midnight local time--right now.

Twits, as I prefer to call those who use Twitter, passed information and repeated via twitter what we heard from phone calls, SMS, IM, and e-mail with affected areas. We knew where people had felt it and had short descriptions from various locations quickly. Many soon switched to self-congratulations about how cool it was that Twitter had operated so quickly, and then that subsided for some comments about how we were commenting on our speed. Jeff Jarvis twittered that he'll be writing about this in The Guardian. It clearly is a fast-moving rhetorical space.

Meanwhile, via MSN instant messaging, mobile-phone text messages, and media such as Sohu, a rumor emerged claiming that a quake had struck in Beijing's suburbs at the same time and that some authority was predicting the big one for between 11 p.m. and midnight. As I said, that's right now, so my sense is that this is a hoax that will either be vindicated or made ridiculous in a matter of minutes.

By the time I had been repeatedly warned about tonight, I checked Sohu, which was then carrying a statement from the Chinese national earthquake-monitoring group saying there was no such prediction. Indeed, "twits" were quick to point out that although China is relatively good at predicting earthquakes, such a precise prediction is regarded as more or less impossible.

The latest word from Chengdu: "More aftershock! This is getting old now. Boring!"

My thoughts are with those in the southwest, and I do hope that skepticism takes the day on the Beijing rumor.

Update: Rick Martin at CNET Asia has more, including some good people to follow on Twitter for information.