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ladin_twitterproscons.jpgIn the past few years, online communication tools have leaped from a technologically-pastoral village of e-mails and IMs into a rapid-fire technoverse of tweets, posts, and updates. Welcome to information exchange at the pace of life. This isn’t evolution, this is transfiguration. While social media, such as popular micro-blogging service Twitter, can potentially benefit “posters” and “followers” alike, how effective and accessible are these new types of communication channels for the purpose of emergency notification? What role, if any, should Twitter have in your organization’s emergency notification program?

Wikipedia defines social media as “media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media uses Internet and Web-based technologies to transform broadcast media monologues (one to many) into social media dialogues (many to many). It supports the democratization of knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers.”

Who Controls the message?

This definition of social media hints equally at its benefit as well as its burden—the transition of information from a monologue to a dialogue encourages a virtual democracy … but at that point, who controls the message and how do you differentiate a trusted information source from a 12-year-old kid from Kansas (no offense intended to kids in Kansas).

According to Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Milian regarding the power of social media, “Anyone can be a reporter for a moment and broadcast to the world.” Yet when bystanders become reporters, real-time, firsthand perspective is gained at the expense of objectivity and accuracy.

Void of fact-checking, verification, reporting standards, or sourcing, information distributed by citizen journalists via social media is subject to unfettered bias and speculation. With that said (in more than 140 characters) there’s no denying the public’s enthusiasm for Twitter and its unique power of immediacy: Haiti is just one example of the notion that when tragedy goes viral, so does hope.

On Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti was rocked by a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Before any damage assessment was made and before rescuers descended, the voices of the unfortunate rang through the Web and beyond via tweets. Using Twitter, Haitians shared first-hand accounts of epic damage and sent heartbreaking pleas for help—140 character cacophonies of misery for the entire world to see, and more importantly act upon. In the moments and days to come Twitter proved itself a catalyst for the mobilization of people and resources spurring unprecedented global philanthropic efforts.

Beware of the fail whale

While social media can be an effective platform for information exchange, relying solely on services like Twitter, or any single mode of communication for that matter, for emergency notification carries inherent risk. Immediately following a strong aftershock in Haiti the morning of Jan. 20, 2010, Twitter crashed just as news began to spread of the quake. Citing “too many tweets,” the outage made the site largely inaccessible for 90 minutes. Although the company did not directly attribute the outage to Haiti posts, its status page addressed the service disruption by stating: “We are experiencing an outage due to an extremely high number of whales. Our on-call team is working on a fix.”

The Twitter outage on Jan. 20, coupled with a denial-of-service attack that took the site down for more than two hours on Aug. 6, 2009, should serve as a reminder that organizations cannot rely on any single communication channel to deliver critical information. Instead, organizations must leverage multiple communication channels – including cell phone, home phone, e-mail, SMS, PDA, and more – in emergency and crisis situations to ensure their message reaches their audience.

The importance of accurate and credible information

In addition to platform reliability issues, experts have raised concerns about social media’s role in facilitating unnecessary panic and spreading false information.

Roberta Witty, Research VP at Gartner Research, addressed the question, “How does social media help or hinder recovery efforts?” on her blog and feels that using social media during a crisis can both help and hinder recovery efforts. “On the positive side, you get direct input from many quarters – those directly involved in the event and those not. On the negative side, you have no way of validating the information sent on social media forums, and some posts may actually harm the enterprise or hinder rescue efforts. Panic can ensue based on false information, or comments may wrongly harm the reputation of the enterprise,” said Witty.

There is no debate that Twitter supports an unprecedented level of real-time information exchange, especially when traditional media is inaccessible, but relying entirely on social media for emergency notification is a dangerous proposition.

Let’s evaluate the pros and cons:

Pros of social media

  • Popularity. According to Forrester Research CEO George Colony, social sites comprise seven of the 15 most trafficked Web sites in the world with Twitter attracting 25 million unique visitors per day.
  • Cost effective. Using social media expands your information delivery in a cost-effective manner – it’s free for the sender!
  • Immediacy. Similar to multi-modal emergency notification systems, tweets are immediate and can broadcast information in real time.

Cons of social media

  • Vulnerability. All forms of social media are vulnerable to security breaches, wide-scale strikes, and denial of service attacks.
  • Emerging technology. The long-term viability and sustainability of these channels are not yet known. An April 2009 study from Nielsen Online suggested that despite the intense popularity of Twitter, more than 60 percent of users that visit the site abandon the service after a month.
  • Performance and scalability. Twitter’s outage on January 20 stemming from “too many tweets” demonstrates the platform’s scalability issues.
  • Credibility. Information shared on social networks is subject to bias and speculation, with few safeguards or boundaries.
  • Coverage and reach. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media channels tend to attract younger and more technologically-adept audiences. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that the median age of a Twitter user is 31, and the median age for Facebook is 33. Adopting a multi-channel emergency notification program is the only way to ensure you can reach audiences across ALL demographics.

A supplemental delivery channel but not a replacement

Renowned crisis communications expert Dr. Robert Chandler, director of the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida, shared his thoughts on Twitter’s role in emergency notification during a Webinar on Jan. 26, 2010. “Twitter is a fascinating medium. On one hand we have several documented cases where Twitter was effective in alerting people to situations of which they otherwise would not be informed … On the other hand, if Twitter were the backbone of your emergency notification, I would be concerned because the coverage is spotty, and it tends to gear toward certain demographics, missing people like myself who don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter.”

Dr. Chandler continued, “Twitter may have a role as a redundancy modality in getting messages out, but it’s far more effective as a resource in planning your messages. I think Twitter is one of the most marvelous pieces of reconnaissance technology available. If you’re curious ‘what do our people need to know’ Twitter may be your place to go to look and listen and find out what issues are on their minds to assist you in creating your messages. Although Twitter can get the word out in certain situations and can be a viable alternative means of disseminating certain types of information, I’m hesitant at this point to recommend it as the backbone of an emergency notification plan.”

With its accessibility, immediacy, and popularity, there is no reason why you should not supplement your emergency notification program with Twitter if resources allow; however, social media cannot, should not, and will not replace a comprehensive emergency notification system that reach across the multiple channels of communication pervasive throughout day-to-day life. When lives depend on contacting as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time, organizations need a fully-vetted and reliable solution.

Marc Ladin is the vice president of global marketing for Everbridge, the world’s recognized leader in incident notification systems. He has more than 15 years of software, hardware, and services marketing experiences and frequently speaks at business continuity and disaster recovery conferences and industry events.