More on TweetQuakes

A few days ago, I wrote (with Alan Mislove) about our TweetQuake visualization (read the relevant post here). Some of the commenters pointed out that it’s not really surprising that tweets travel faster than earthquakes. Here’s Andrew Gelman (I don’t know if it’s that famous Andrew Gelman, but I think so) commenting on The Monkey Cage Blog:

And he’s right. Information traveling via optical fiber is about as fast as anything you can find in the universe (and as Gelman points out, other important examples of rapid communication technology includes telephone/radio communication). This much was even clear to yours truly when I read the xkcd comic no. 723 back in April of 2010. I tweeted:

i guess it’s somewhat trivial, but nonetheless – it seemed profund when i read it: tweets are faster than earthquakes

So why did it seem profound when I read the comic? Why is it still interesting that Twitter is faster than an earthquake? The fact that the news of the earthquake on twitter spreads faster geographically than the earthquake itself is something non-trivial and profound.

And I think I can explain why. Until now, we’ve categorized earthquakes among events happen so quickly that they’re instantaneous for all intents and purposes. An event that propagates between 6 700 and 11 200 miles/hour is incredibly fast.

So the surprise is not that electronic signals are fast, but that a news medium (i.e. Twitter/Facebook) can deliver news faster than things that used to be instantaneous. That is what is new (and kind of awesome)!

But not that awesome – because even though you know the earthquake is coming before it hits, there’s still not really time to react properly to the threat; the earthquake will still be there in a few seconds time. And the Twitter advertisement team picked up on just this fact in their most recent advertisement, embedded below.

The message is clear: You do get the news about the quake arriving, but it doesn’t really change anything.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Last year, when we created the twitter Pulse of the Nation visualization (check it out here if you haven’t seen it), I came up with a highly speculative (and self-important) analogy that I love to talk about.

The general idea is that even though the importance of individual tweets is highly variable, something interesting begins to happen when we look at thousands, millions, or even billions of them. I wrote:

In analogy to individual neurons firing together to add up to the human consciousness, the billions of tweets have meaningful macro-states that contain information about the whole system rather than the individual tweeters. But we need to do a little data mining to extract meaningful information about these states, to expose our collective states of mind. [quoted from here]

Now, I think the earthquake visualization can be thought of as a a manifestation of the same kind of phenomenon. If the twitterverse is to be taken seriously as some kind of global-scale nervous system, the earthquake response is not something like the state-of-mind or consciousness that I claimed the mood was.

The earthquake response is something closer to that ultra fast reflex that kicks in right before you’re unavoidably punched in the face. Like the guy in the movie below at around 16 seconds in. Notice him closing his eyes and clenching his facial muscles tightly in anticipation:

He knows something uncomfortable is coming, but has to hang tight and hope that it’s not too tough. And that’s the type of edge that twitter has given us with respect to the earthquake.

Let me know what you think in the comments!