Communication for Sustainable Development

After earthquake and tsunami, Twitter messages give news advisories, prayers for victims and shocked reactions

Just as Egypt has been cast as the Twitter revolution, so Friday's massive Japanese earthquake and tsunami was destined to become the Twitter disaster.
In 140-character bites, the story unfolded: the shock and terror; the sense of human frailty mixed with lifesaving information; the messages of those seeking comfort and those seeing some kind of divine retribution, all mixing at hyper-speed.

"Poor japan," said one typical sentiment. "Prayers to Japan and anyone in the path of the tsunami," said another.

"I go to sleep a happy girl and I wake up to a horrible earthquake in Japan and tsunami warnings," said one posting.

Mixed in with the raw emotion were the community-service bulletins of the sort that small-town radio stations once provided during tornadoes or floods. There were status reports on transport links, the warnings that cooling wasn't going as planned after the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear facility was shut down, the embassy numbers for foreign residents of Tokyo to call, in Spanish, in French, in Dutch.

Some added little, just advising that an earthquake had happened. Others bordered on the lyrical: "let us lift a prayer for japan. as the night covers their nation in darkness, let our prayers be their light."

All the while, the death toll rose inexorably: 20 confirmed dead, 43, 60, a report that 100 bodies had been found in Sendai alone, until it just became "hundreds" as everyone knew what direction it was headed.

"Death toll of hundreds so far," said another tweet. "Train with passengers disappears in Miyagi prefecture," said another as reports, confirmed and unconfirmed, flew.

A report released in January by the group Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities, with funding from the Knight Foundation, found that in the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake last year, that country became a real-world laboratory for several new applications, including interactive maps and mobile-phone texting.

On Friday, meanwhile, some Twitter users just stated the obvious, repeating that there was an earthquake to try and get their head around it, all the while urging Japan on. "Japan, you are resilient enough to have survived Hiroshima," said one, urging them to do it again.

With the memory of Haiti still fresh, some noted the contrast. "Headline you won't be reading," said one. Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes. But it's the truth."

In this time when nature showed its fury, many looked for some greater meaning. "Don't be afraid of how big the #tsunami is, show the #tsunami how big your God is," said one.

Others preferred a more temporal approach. "Don't pray for Japan, #donateforjapan here: other humans will do a lot more than a fictitious supernatural being."

Finally, there was the reference to the movie "2012" about wanton destruction. "dear 2011," one posting said, "stop trying to be 2012 please."


Solutions for Small Business