Earthquake on Twitter

All the people and media that keep saying that Twitter is useless may have to think again. When I looked on Twitter around 2:30 PM this afternoon I noticed a tweet from Frank Yu saying “Earthquake in Beijing?“. Despite the shaking building, he kept on Twittering and he even made fun of himself when he wrote: “i twittered as the building swayed…screw running out the door, MUST TWEET !

By that time several other friends in Beijing had started to Twitter about the earthquake, but in Shanghai it was still quiet. Either because the quake was not as obvious here, or maybe because it arrived a bit later in Shanghai (how quick do earthquake waves travel actually?). Although I was busy working I was so fascinated by what happened on Twitter during the next hour or so that I spent more time watching the tweets roll by than focus on the emails I was planning to write.

At first nobody knew where the earthquake was, but soon it turned out that the epicenter was around Chengdu. And of course within a few minutes the Twitter community found at least 3 active Twitterers (, and that were reporting live from Chengdu. Quite amazing to see how quickly news spreads on Twitter, because we already had all information before the mainstream media picked it up. In my 80 year old brick-and-mortar Shanghai warehouse office I did not feel a thing, but on Twitter I read that many office buildings in Beijing and Shanghai were being evacuated. Must not be a nice feeling to walk tens of stories in a crowded stairway while you are not sure what really happened and if another shock might hit soon. Being in China, I would not be surprised if some people decided to just take the elevator despite the potential danger.

Some interesting tweets followed. Niubi reported that the Beijing air traffic controllers left the control tower when it started shaking (imagine you are a pilot making an approach to Beijing airport and suddenly you cannot reach the tower anymore!). Later he tweeted the CCTV advise of what to do during an earthquake: sit in the corner with a sofa pillow over your head (no kidding!). According to Shizao the first website that went down in China during the earthquake was…. the Earthquake Bureau’s website (thanks to Kaiser Kuo for the retweet).

Only a while later other media followed. First the blogs (Danwei was the first with a post up I think, soon followed by this post on Shanghaiist), and then the major news agencies. CNN decided to use this Tudou footage in its constant covering of the earthquake, but nicely covered the Tudou logo with its own logo. Twitter kept on being the first to report, and even though initial reports showed not much damage in Chengdu it soon turned out to be much much worse outside the city. In Dujiangyan for example, where the Dutch Chinareis group went just over a month ago to get VIP seats during the water release ceremony, schools and houses collapsed and hundreds of people are now buried under the rubble.

My colleague Thijs Bosma had booked a plane from Shanghai to Chengdu that was supposed to take off soon after the earthquake, but it first got delayed and was later canceled. Shortly after I heard that Chengdu airport had completely closed. Bad luck for him, but nothing in comparison to the thousands of people that have lost their lives today. A terrible tragedy on Buddha’s birthday and exactly 88 days before the Olympics (both these facts I got from Twitter today; 88 is a lucky number in China). It seems the Olympic year is not China’s lucky year: first the heavy snow, then the Tibet protests, followed by the still ongoing HFM disease, and now this huge earthquake (source: this tweet). Let’s hope that things can only get better.

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