For those of you who aren’t familiar with the world of Twitter yet, using a hashtag (#) before a word is a way of creating a topic in Twitter. By putting a topic like #boulderfire into a tweet, you are actively joining the conversation. Twitter users can filter on that word and see every tweet about that topic.
I initially joined Twitter because that’s what all the cool entrepreneurs in town were doing. Most people I met were die-hard “tweeters.” While I saw its usefulness, Twitter was never a necessity for me. However, that changed on Labor Day when a forest fire started in the hills above Boulder. By checking Twitter, I was able to identify the source of the smoke above my house. As the fire spread, my close-knit community literally came alive on Twitter, with everyone joining in the conversation using the tag #boulderfire. People tweeted important information about evacuation orders and offered assistance with food, housing, and legal advice for those already displaced. One person even tweeted the contents of the police scanner so people were up to date. There is no other communication medium that can enable this sort of community support network.
Even the emergency management system relied on Twitter. When the reverse 911 system—which is intended to alert residents to evacuate their homes—failed, the police department requested that people use Twitter to alert those in the affected areas! Seriously, Twitter just saved some lives. I hope an app I’m involved with will one day do that.
These last few days, I’ve thought a lot about the firefighters risking their lives and the adversity our community is facing. And perhaps it seems strange, but the last few days have also opened my eyes to the true value of Twitter. Twitter isn’t just for self-proclaimed internet marketing experts and Justin Bieber fans, Twitter can literally help a community organize, communicate, and respond effectively and rapidly to a natural disaster. Normal citizens can provide invaluable information, resources, and support to those in need (or to those who are just plain curious). We, as a community, wouldn’t be able to do that as quickly or as easily without Twitter.