Over the last few days the Web has been abuzz with discussion about how users on Twitter, the online social messaging system, beat the mainstream media with news of the devastating earthquake in China. Most of the discussion has centered around how users were fast in getting information out against mainstream media Web sites, but does the claim really hold-up?
Many of the reports measured Twitter against mainstream sites, noting big gaps between reports on the two, but they are very different animals. Twitter is all about immediacy and small, bite-size pieces of information, whereas media Web sites -- even the fast ones -- tend to err on the side of caution and wait until at least a smattering of details are known. Earthquakes take place everyday all around the world, and some moderate shaking in one city isn't usually enough to send Web sites to post stories.
Perhaps a much better comparison is the real-time newswires whose business it is to flash information, often as nothing more than Twitter-like headlines, around the world in seconds. So how did Twitter compare to Bloomberg, Reuters, and Dow Jones?
According to a timeline of Twitters on the earthquake the first message, "earthquake. not sure how big. maybe 4.5," hit Twitter at 2:35:33 p.m. Beijing local time. The earthquake occurred at 2:28 p.m. but it took time for the shock waves to travel the 1,500 kilometers to Beijing.
Twenty three seconds later, at 2:35:55 Bloomberg News ran with "Earthquake Shakes Beijing Office," and followed it 22 seconds later with "Earthquake Felt In Central Beijing." Dow Jones ran with "Earthquake Rocks Beijing; Still Underway" at 2:36 p.m. and Reuters came with "Beijing Shaken By Earthquake, Office Buildings Sway," at 2:37 p.m., according to searches run on the news agency's terminals. Beijing did register its own separate 3.9 earthquake at 2:35 p.m., according to China's State Seismological Bureau.
So Twitter did beat the newswires with news of the quake, but beyond the fact that a mild quake had shaken Beijing, not much more was known.
The first indication of the potential seriousness of the quake came at 2:39 when Reuters reported "Earthquake Magnitude 7.8 Hits Eastern Sichuan Province - USGS." Bloomberg followed with a similar report at 2:40 but it wasn't until 2:41 that the magnitude and location was first reported on Twitter. By that time the newswires had also reported the quake being felt in Shanghai and Taiwan but the Twitter talk was still on Beijing.
So perhaps the winner is a lot more difficult to pick. Internet users on Twitter managed to beat the real-time newswires with first reports of the quake, but the wires came back with the context that pointed to the quake's seriousness much faster than Twitter users could.