From China to Exeter the micro-blogging tool broke the news ahead of the mainstream media.

“Just heard a big blast near badi chowpak. Donno what it was.”
much of a quote, but it was enough to get the story out. Sandil
Srinivasan, or 2s as he is known on the microblogging service Twitter,
was in Jaipur on 13 May when the first of a series of nine synchronized
bombs exploded in the capital city of the northern Indian  state of 
Rajasthan. A few seconds after he heard the blast he sent the message
above from his mobile phone to Twitter. Twitter limits messages to 140
characters, and delivers them to the internet, mobile phone or instant
messenger. Crucially, ‘twitterers’ can make their ‘tweets’ public and
therefore searchable by keyword and location.

Since the launch
of Twitter there has been an enormous growth in the number of tools to
support the service. One of the key tools for journalists is Tweetscan.
Tweetscan allows anyone to search Twitter messages for keywords e.g.
bomb, Jaipur, blast, India. BBC journalist Robin Hamman quickly located
Sandil in Jaipur well before any mainstream media outlet had a reporter
on the ground.

“Within a couple of minutes of the first of
several bomb explosions in Jaipur, Tweetscan helped me find an
eyewitness who was tweeting as he searched for his mother and dodged
bombs exploding as close as 20 feet away. Or so he said,” says Robin.
“The immediacy and intimacy of the content one can find on Twitter is
extremely powerful. Sometimes it’s almost like being there.”
But, how do you verify a tweet?

problem with all this stuff, however, is that verification is often
difficult if not impossible,” adds Robin. “When it comes to Twitter, a
service called Twitterlocal can come in useful for cross checking a
user’s location with the content of their tweets but it’s easy enough
for a user who really wants to pull a con to simply alter their

Similar technologies are having an impact in other
parts of the world. Good mobile phone netoworks exist in much of Africa
and in Nigeria and Ghana mobile phone users helped monitor the 2007
presidential elections with a service called FrontlineSMS. This allows
users to send a text message to large groups of people and it does not
require a internet connection. However, unlike Twitter messages, these
are not automatically published on the internet.

Twitter helped
student James Karl Buck get out of an Egyptian jail. He was in Cairo
during the April food price riots when he was arrested. On the way to
the police station, Buck sent a message to his friends and contacts.
The message consited of one word. “Arrested”. It was enough to set the
wheels in motion to ensure his release the following day.

At the Wichita Eagle
newspaper court reporter Ron Sylvester used Twitter to update a
dedicated newspaper webpage live and direct from the  courtroom of an
ongoing trial. As Canadian journalism teacher Mark Hamilton points out
on his blog,
“Twitter makes even more sense than something like
Court TV because we don’t get it all, we get the important bits, and an
anecdote or two and a little colour, strained through the mind of a
journalist. No boring bits.”

While Twitter has its uses, it is
no news panacea. Kaiser Kuo of the Digital Watch blog was in China at
the time the earthquake struck Sichuan province in May,
immediacy was nice, but by no means unique. The whole time I was
twittering, my wife was on her instant messengers, with both QQ and MSN
Live [Instant Messenger tools] open. She was also monitoring all the
portals’ news flashes on the quake. I didn’t feel like I had any more
information than she did. Twitter’s public nature was of some real
value both for ordinary folk and for professional journalists, who were
able to quickly identify English-speakers on the scene who could be
interviewed. The broadcast nature of Twitter… was… something that
made it better than simple IM.”

According to Twitterlocal
statistics, Twitter is most popular in Japan, followed by the US and
Britain. However, the service is still very niche. As of March, the
popular technology blog TechCrunch estimated there were over one
million Twitter users, 200,000 “active users” per week and a total of
three million tweets sent per day. 10 Downing Street jumped aboard the
tweetwagon in March, which could signify more mainstream uptake.

And for journalists seeking sources, that can only be a good thing.

by Graham Holliday