Friday, August 3, 2007

Phatic messages and communicating during disasters

I was watching television and using my notebook (the default) the other night when news broke on the Minneapolis bridge collapse. I have a lot of friends and colleagues at the University of Minnesota, and when events like this happen your first thoughts always turn to their well being. I was so wanting to get a tweet from them, but realized that not a single one of them was on Twitter.

Not long into the news coverage they told us that the Minneapolis cellular networks were down. I knew that what they meant to say was that the "voice" network was down. In situations like this the text messaging system becomes the most reliable form of communication. SMS is the Energizer Bunny of communication modalities. Where other technologies fail SMS almost always works. Following Katrina, where power was out, and Internet communications were down for days, where voice networks were congested and basically unusable, SMS messages were getting through just fine. As long as you could keep a charge on your phone you could communicate -- 160 characters at a time.

I've been thinking about phatic messages and Twitter quite a bit over the last few days. Where Twitter is a lot of fun, in my closest work group we have all realized that its use is anything but trivial. I'm starting to think that Twitter has some very significant uses for crisis/disaster communication to large groups (citizens). Checkout what the Los Angeles Fire Department is doing with Twitter. That is very cool! What if Virginia Tech had been using Twitter last April? I know a lot of conversation revolved around the Virginia Tech campus shooting and the lack of a closed SMS notification system. Why do they need their own? What's wrong with public? I know Twitter has varying degrees of reliability, it's new and struggling with growth, but it's better than what they had at Virginia Tech last April which was nothing.

I've come to the conclusion that it is time to start pushing Twitter adoption in my family. Those phatic messages are trivial until such time as you need to know that someone is doing okay. "Eating a breakfast burrito" isn't a trivial message to receive when you're worried about someone's very well being.


Eli Sagor said...

Thanks Kevin for pointing out that SMS / text messages on the cell network still worked. I live in the Twin Cities area and found myself wanting to quickly let friends and family know we were OK. I posted a status update to facebook, but knew the cell network was down and didn't think of texting.

And, although I enjoy following several folks' tweets, very few people who I actually know are on Twitter. I may start to push it a bit more too...

Kevin Gamble said...


Thank you for your comment. It's nice to have that firsthand perspective. Also, very good to hear that you are doing well.

Glad to have you back and tweeting!


Jonathan Davis said...

CNET's recent article Why cell phone networks are a weak link in a crisis explains why SMS keeps working during an emergency even though voice-cellphone calls fail. Here in Auburn, this also applies during home football games when droves of fans come to town.

Floyd Davenport said...

What a great example of how a technology which so many don't quite understand, "get", becomes so essential. Context...

It is making me reconsider data connectivity for my phone- yes, I only have 801 on my phone.