SAN FRANCISCO, (AFP) - The world had real-time news about China's massive earthquake as victims dashed out "twitter" text messages while it took place, in what was being touted Tuesday as micro-blogging outshining mainstream news.
As the earth shook with tragic consequences, people in the parts of China that felt the quake used their mobile telephones to send terse messages using the service provided by the San Francisco-based Twitter Inc.
News of the deadly catastrophe reached Twitter devotees such as blogger Robert Scoble in San Francisco even before the massive temblor, which killed more than 12,000 people in Sichuan province, was reported by news organizations and the earthquake-tracking US Geological Survey.
"Several people in China reported to me they felt the quake while it was going on!," Scoble wrote in his popular Scobleizer blog.
Twitters are abbreviated text messages that can be instantly posted on online bulletin boards and personal websites and sent to the mobile telephones of selected friends.
They were at the forefront of a gush of quake pictures and video swiftly posted online via services such as Yahoo's Flickr, Google's YouTube, and French entrepreneur Loic Le Meur's fledgling Seesmic, which has been called the "Twitter of video."
Twitter reportedly became a source of information for major news organizations covering the China earthquake.
"This event has the potential to bring mainstream media into the Twitter world," Alec Saunders wrote in his Personal Soapbox blog.
Twitter launched in March of 2006 and ignited a "micro-blogging" trend by letting people share their every move, mundane or dazzling, with friends every moment of the day.
Twitter users get a maximum of 140 characters a message; ironically, Twitter designer Biz Stone envisioned its potential as a communication tool by a "tweet" warning he received about a California earthquake while about to board a train last year.
Twitter founder Jack Dorsey told AFP in a 2007 interview that inspiration for the service came from his experience writing software for courier and emergency service dispatchers that need to route people between locations.
"It was an immediate pulse that sums up the zeitgeist of Twitter," Stone told AFP.
Twitter's role spreading word about China's earthquake seems to have won others to Stone's camp, but skeptics remain.
Search Engine Land blogger Danny Sullivan called it "absurd" to suggest that Twitter users knew of the Sichuan earthquake before the US Geological Survey, which uses seismic equipment positioned around the world to record such events, and then after a scientist's review sends out notices of the events.
"Reading some of the accounts, you'd get the impression Twitter seemed to alert the USGS to the news," Sullivan said.