Twitter: your partner in panic facilitation

by | Feb 3, 2009

The vast potential of social networking technologies to aggregate people and effects is something that we’ve been interested in for a while now here at Global Dashboard.  In the blue corner: Linux, Wikipedia, anti-FARC protests organised over Facebook.  In the red corner: insurgents in Mumbai using Twitter to help them to co-ordinate their attacks.

Well, the last two days have brought another couple of examples.  As David noted yesterday, one of them is the current spate of wildcat strikes in the UK, where strikers have been using bulletin board sites like BearFacts and informal text messaging networks.

The other was to be found yesterday on Twitter.  As the strikes gathered pace and as heavy snowfall brought much of the UK’s transport system to a standstill, one Twitter user whose updates I subscribe to posted this:

I can confirm that the Co-Op in Forest Hill is out of stock of Heinz Tomato soup #uksnow #blitz #panicbuying

Now, if you’re not familiar with Twitter, then you won’t be aware that the practice of putting ‘#’ in front of a key word is designed to help users to search rapidly for all tweets related to the same topic. So during the Mumbai attacks, for example, you could immediately gather all tweets on the subject simply by searching on #Mumbai.

Image Author: Flickr user ~Molz~

Image Author: Flickr user ~Molz~

What was interesting to me about this particular tweet was the fact that it was the first on the subject.  The user who made the post was not commenting on an existing subject of chatter on Twitter, nor merely observing that tinned soup was moving fast at his local supermarket, but intentionally turning his observation into a new meme designed to spread infectiously.

Sure enough, within moments two other Twitter users had posted an ‘RT’ – a so-called ‘re-tweet’ – copying the message and passing it on to all of their subscribers.  By this point, the #panicbuying meme had reached a potential number of just over 1,000 people (the total number of people to subscribe to the three users who had so far posted on the subject).

Then, a couple more minutes later, someone else – with another thousand subscribers of their own – posted this:

#uksnow #panicbuying in full swing in my local Somerfield as people cart out tins of soup. Wonder if it will spread to the local deli!

Admittedly, the tone of these posts is light-hearted; there’s nothing at all to suggest that any of the users wanted to trigger nationwide panic-buying.  And, in the event, this particular meme didn’t flourish this time – a few more tweets later, the subject was dropped.

But what if #panicbuying had taken off?

The point about Twitter and other social networking technologies is that in our hyper-networked age, we just haven’t yet had the time to develop the collective mechanisms to make sure that this awesome power to aggregate, to build positive feedback loops, is channelled safely.  As Lucy Kellaway puts it in today’s FT:

The internet has created a global psyche. The web has mentally joined us at the hip, so we can no longer put our heads in the sand. If that sounds painfully contorted, it is because it is. Just as no country can decouple itself from the ailing global economy, none of us as individuals can decouple ourselves from the ailing global psyche.

Through blogs, websites and e-mails the world’s economic ills are fed to us on a drip all day long. It is not just that we hear about bad things faster, we hear about more of them and in a more immediate way. My worries become yours, and yours become mine. On the internet, a trouble shared online is not a trouble halved. It is a trouble needlessly multiplied all over the world…

This would not matter so much if it were not for the fact that confidence is the medicine that cures a recession; and all this sharing of bad news leaves one with no confidence at all.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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