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Twitter's role in reporting Boston Marathon bombing shows ingenuity of users

Who could have expected that Twitter users would use the tool for such important purposes, all on their own volition?

This guest post was submitted by Lorinda Brandon, Director of Strategy at Smartbear Software

I live in the Boston metro area, so forgive me if this week I come across as a bit reflective and not overly technical. The whole world has acknowledged the senselessness of the bombings at the Marathon this week, and we’ve received an outpouring of love and support (much like many other all-too-frequent occurrences in other locations). But it's hard to understand the nature of Patriot’s Day in Boston unless you live here - it's a celebration of all things Bostonian, from the re-enactment of the American Revolution at dawn to the end of the home Red Sox game. And, in the midst of that, the Boston Marathon. We enter this day to celebrate. But this year, we are all weeping.

For many of us who were local and watching it unfold, it had an eerie similarity to 9/11 in that it was hard to tell what had happened, why it had happened, and whether it was really over or still unfolding. While it was so much smaller scale than that horrible day in 2001, it was still that same unsettled feeling in the face of ongoing tragedy and chaos. But as I compare the two incidents in my mind, it’s not just the scale that is different – it is how we communicated and participated during the event.

My memory of 9/11 is crystal clear. I was in the office and word spread via phone calls first. As we all heard about what was happening, we found ourselves migrating to the televisions available in the office gym, watching two different stations as the world unraveled before our eyes. This time, on April 15, 2013, I was also in the office. But, as with most world events these days, I heard it first on Twitter. I did periodically go check in on the television we have in the kitchen, but the news there actually lagged behind the news on Twitter. Twitter has the advantage of real-time, on-the-scene updates that are tweeted and retweeted at a speed no newscast can keep up with. Add to that the heavy reliance on Twitter that government and police officials have developed, and you have all you need in the Twitterverse. In fact, when we watched the evening news, it was mostly a rehash of the photos and videos we saw first in tweets.

Originally, Twitter was just a quick way for an individual to communicate with a small group of users via SMS. When it launched publicly in 2006 as a way to send short, quick messages to self-designated interested parties, only the most visionary saw its potential. The appeal was immediately apparent to marketers, of course, especially after Twitter’s 2007 marketing blitz at SXSW. It was like a resurgence of the telegram, only in digital form and without the overhead.

Did Jack Dorsey ever expect people to use Twitter to launch revolutions, broadcast breaking news, or, as in Boston this week, offer up their homes/hearts/money/prayers to victims? No, of course not. His famous notebook sketch shows a definite affinity for the personal update.

As is always the danger and blessing in software, users have a mind of their own. From a simple personal update to a disaster communication tool, it has evolved in ways none of us could have predicted and has commendably let its users steer the way. And it continues to evolve – a recent article in the Washington Post exposed a debate in the medical community about mining the data in tweets to find patterns for the spread of disease, for example.

And now, Twitter faces a future that has enormous ramifications. I don’t know if I would have the strength to sit in feature review meetings knowing that the decisions I make there would affect so many people at such important moments in their lives. In reality, the company has to figure out how to manage revenue like any other business or they risk failure, which none of us can afford to have happen now. The current success with their advertising focus is encouraging, so let’s hope they can ride that tide well into the future. I, for one, think they have done a great job of maintaining their role as the world’s heart in an emergency while still remaining a viable business.

I am often impressed and amazed by Twitter’s resiliency and responsibility to the world’s infrastructure. I will even graciously accept the occasional #failwhale as a consequence of all the good they’ve brought us.

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About Lorinda Brandon, Director of Solutions Strategy at SmartBear

For more than 25 years, Lorinda Brandonhas worked in various management roles in the high-tech industry, including customer service, quality assurance and engineering. She is currently Director of Solutions Strategy at SmartBear Software, a leading supplier of software quality tools. She has built and led numerous successful technical teams at various companies, including RR Donnelley, EMC, Kayak Software, Exit41 and Intuit, among others. She specializes in rejuvenating product management, quality assurance and engineering teams by re-organizing and expanding staff and refining processes used within organizations. She has a bachelor’s degree in art history from Arizona State University. Follow her on Twitter @lindybrandon.

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