Japan Earthquake on Twitter: Social Media Trends During Disaster

The tragic magnitude 8.9 earthquake that struck Japan at 12:46 a.m. EST this morning has not only left its mark on the people, infrastructure, society and economy of Japan. It also created a cresting wave in the social media space. Twitter has a long history of being used to track earthquakes. The US Geological Survey maintains the "World Earthquakes" feed (@earthquake), and their @USGSted is an official site tracking earthquake responses (Twitter Earthquake Detector). The USGS has found that  spikes in twitter traffic from affected populations occurs within seconds of a quake, compared to the typical 2 to 20 minutes that it takes for scientific alerts to be issued.

Data from Trendistic.com shows that within about 75 minutes of the largest jolt, Twitter traffic related to Japan jumped dramatically. Typically about 0.05% of all Twitter traffic relates to Japan, but at 2:00 a.m. EST, it accounted for nearly 12% of all twitter traffic. Here's the graph from Trendistic. Perhaps coincidentally, Twitter traffic about Haiti also jumped from practically nothing to 10% following their massive quake in January 2010.

A retrospective analysis of Twitter traffic has also found that traffic correlates well with the incidence of infectious disease. The trick, of course, is interpreting what this means. Obviously people will tweet about news items, or if the ground around them is shaking. The trick may be in how to monitor the 25 billion tweets that are sent each year to pick up such emergent trends. Do they tell us anything new? In the case of earthquakes they appear to be quicker than scientific alerts, though by a time margin that likely doesn't affect response.

Its also fascinating that even when major disaster hits, people are reaching for their phones to tweet about it, rather than heading for higher ground or assessing their surroundings or the well being of their family and neighbors. Is social media truly entering our social DNA to the point that for a significant number of people it is part of their reflex response to emergency? Or are we finally empowering citizens the world over with a tool that allows them to fulfill a very basic human need: The need to let others know when tragedy strikes.

Photo credit: USGS