Decoding Our Chatter

When Virginia’s magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit last August, the first Twitter reports sent from people at the epicenter began almost instantly at 1:51 p.m. — and reached New York about 40 seconds ahead of the quake’s first shock waves, according to calculations by the social media company SocialFlow. The flood of messages peaked at 5,500 tweets a second.

The first terse tweets also outpaced the U.S. Geological Survey’s conventional seismometers, which normally can take from two to 20 minutes to generate an alert. The agency is now experimenting with Twitter as a faster and cheaper way to track earthquakes.

Never have scientists had so much readily accessible, real-time data about what people say. Twitter, the service that allows users to send text updates of up to 140 characters out to the public, publishes more than 200 million messages, or tweets, a day. Compared with information from cellphone records and social-media sites, Twitter texts are as timely as a pulse beat and, taken together, automatically compile the raw material of social history.

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