Mike Isaac

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Twitter Throws Japan a Lifeline

The natural disaster that struck Japan in March of 2011 came with serious consequences — nearly 16,000 fatalities and upward of 2,800 people unaccounted for, at last count. Since then, the government of Japan has worked on disaster preparedness contingency plans in case of another massive earthquake.

The country may have a little more help (outside of the Red Cross, that is). Twitter’s Tokyo team launched “Lifeline” on Friday evening, a feature that allows users in Japan to more easily locate Twitter accounts that deliver pertinent local information in the case of another disaster.

So, according to Twitter’s example, if an earthquake hit in Yokohama, all a user would need to do is type in their postal code on Twitter.com. Lifeline brings up a list of relevant Twitter accounts from local media outlets and utility companies that service residents of that particular area code.

As of today, the service is only available in Japan; Twitter has joined the Prime Minister’s Lifeline Commission, and worked with different levels of government to get the project off the ground. But the company hopes to go beyond Japan at some point: “Since Twitter often becomes a de facto lifeline during crises everywhere, we hope to eventually expand this functionality to more locations around the world,” product manager Jinen Kamdar wrote in a company blog post.

Which makes sense. Twitter has played a role in global events for years now, from the Arab Spring uprisings to the Occupy Wall Street movement more recently. And there’s the more relevant example to Lifeline, in which survivors of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti used Twitter to raise funds and, in some instances, find survivors among the wreckage.

Of note: Another social network, Nextdoor, is already trying to do something somewhat similar to Twitter’s Lifeline program. Nextdoor is aimed primarily at neighborhoods, and is working with local government in select cities to provide updates to residents in particular neighborhoods on civic issues, with local government playing a role in doing the broadcasting of information.

The problem with initiatives like Nextdoor’s and Twitter’s, however, is that, obviously, not all residents are social-media-savvy, or even signed up for the service. So government still must rely on more traditional broadcast media — namely television and radio — to reach constituents. In other words, don’t expect the Emergency Broadcast System to go away overnight.

Still, these types of programs are beneficial for both the social networks and the government agencies that adopt them: Politicians and the city get to provide their citizens with more services, usually with little additional overhead, while social networks get the added benefit of more distribution to wider, non-techie demographics.

Self-interested or not, more safety measures are almost always a good thing. Let’s just hope we don’t need to put them to use anytime soon.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work