5/20/2009

Twexperiments in on-the-ground reportage

This afternoon UCI sent out a campus-wide alert (called a ZOTalert) about a possible gunman on campus by sending text messages to student and employee cellphones. Almost immediately the UCI homepage crashed, so to find more information I logged in to Twitter.

Using hashtags (which are search terms designated by #sign) I searched Twitter for any happenings. I found that most people tweeting the alert were using the "#UCI" or "#gunman" tags so I kept a browser window open with those search terms and started filtering through the noise to see which messages seemed to give corroborating information about what was actually happening on campus. (Note: I was on campus at the time, but not near the central areas where the action was happening).

I learned that a few buildings seemed to be on "lockdown" (such as Aldrich Hall and the Student Center), that students were warned to sit away from windows, and that there seemed to be a large police force amassed on campus (and a SWAT team, perhaps?). Then I started "re-tweeting" or reposting the messages that seemed to have the most new information, designating them as such by the "RT @username" prefacing each of my tweets.

Because my twitter feed sends my status updates directly to my FB page, a conversation started there among various staff and students to confirm the twitter info. Simultaneously I kept my twitter search windows refreshing and my cellphone nearby.

A few observations from this experience:
1) Twitter is an unreliable news source, but its invaluable for 'of-the-moment' reportage. Being able to communicate with tweeps in the Student Center who could see the police activities (including the detention of an innocent student in camo pants) helped me to know how serious the situation really was. I knew that there hadn't been any actual shootings, just a concern over a possible gunman.
2) ZOTalerts, while a good system, really failed when it sent the UCI homepage down. This, IMO, aggravated the hysteria among various campus affiliates because no one could get current information.
3) I am personally concerned that the surrounding schools (there's a high school 2 blks away and an elementary school abt .5mi away) weren't alerted to possible danger. K-12 students were sent home as usual and those who ride buses were being dropped off at points all around the campus during the height of the scare. Apparently, the kids on the buses knew about the gunman through text-messenging or cellphone calls, but their bus drivers did not.
4) I learned a bit more about twitter functionality from this "twexperiment." Next time there's a scare like this on campus (whether real or faux), I'll be even better-prepared to find and disseminate the pertinent information quickly.

UPDATE: Readers from the OCRegister, thanks for dropping by!

5 comments:

Charles said...

Very interesting that you and I were having much the same experience. In my case my wife, who is a student at UCI, called to tell me about the initial ZOT alert,and that she was frightened. I then searched Twitter for "UCI" and began to follow the torrent of updates, some helpful others ridiculous. But overall it was the best single source of up-to-date, on the scene, and, shall we say, "immediate" information. I was very glad to have had twitter this afternoon.

Penny L. Richards said...

I remember feeling very comforted by an old-fashioned listserv in 1995, when a gunman turned up on the main street of Chapel Hill. On the listserv there were messages coming from everywhere, up and down Franklin Street and all over campus, saying "this is what I can see, this is what I'm hearing."

Rich data when and where you need it is far more useful than an official statement at the press conference two hours later.

Laura said...

What a bad time to spend two uninformed hours locked in my own office without an internet connection! I wonder, though, if having more, conflicting, and sometimes erroneous information would have have made a difference to anyone's safety had there been a real threat at UCI this afternoon?

earthtomeryl said...

Don't know if you've seen it yet, but this post was quoted in the OC Register: http://www.ocregister.com/articles/twitter-student-police-2423861-gun-violence

G said...

fascinating and disturbing. so very grateful that it wasn't a real situation. (those seem to be happening so frequently)

good chance for ZOTalert to get the bugs worked out?