When the table started to shake at Starbucks I thought it was the man next to me bouncing his leg up and down. I turned to give him a withering gaze and was surprised to see he was sitting perfectly still, transfixed by his Blackberry. That’s when I thought, “Is this an earthquake?” But it couldn’t be an earthquake because North Carolina doesn’t get earthquakes. Yet the table kept shaking and the patrons of Starbucks actually started talking to each other, violating the sacred barriers of privacy that we usually create with ear buds and smartphones and fascinating reading material.
Then it stopped, so I turned to Twitter to find out if that actually was an earthquake or if the baristas had laced the coffee with LSD to induce a mass hallucination. I felt stupid asking the question because I knew I’d look like an idiot if it turned out it had just been a huge semi-truck driving by. Thankfully I didn’t look like a moron because several other people were tweeting that they’d felt it all the way to Canada. Yet, the baristas a few feet away had totally missed it.
I followed the tweets for at least 15 minutes afterward and there was much post-earthquake humor to enjoy. People from LA made fun of us just like I make fun of them for their inability to drive in the rain. I recalled how two of my friends from California had independently marveled at how many brick structures there were in the Midwest, which I’d never much thought about until I saw pictures of how brick walls crumble when the earth shakes. I also giggled when a few hours later my MP3 player randomly played “Little Earthquakes” by Tori Amos.
What I found most striking was that I’d instantly turned to Twitter for information. I checked the news sites and the offical government earthquake site, but none of them had been updated within 60 seconds of the event like Twitter had. Millions of other people had the same reaction as I did because in the aftermath Twitter hit 5500 tweets per second, which was more than Osama Bin Laden’s death attracted.
The 10th anniversary of September 11th is coming up. One of the things I remember about that awful day was that it was the first time people turned to the web en masse for breaking news. The news sites were slammed. The front pages took minutes to load, if you got them to load at all. The web designers switched to simple layouts that were smaller and faster to load, but it was still slow-going. This year will be marked for me as the time I started getting breaking news from Twitter. That’s where I heard about Osama Bin Laden’s death and got details about the east coast earthquake. After the earthquake the regular news channels were more like middle men. Why wait for reporters to talk to people who were there when you can talk to them yourself, even if you’re hundreds of miles away? The news sites are important, don’t get me wrong. They confirm the news instead of repeating rumors that might appear on Twitter (well, they’re supposed to anyway), and they can talk to official sources who might not be tweeting. But when I want to know what’s happening right now, I turn to Twitter.
I don’t know what technology I’ll be turning to ten years from now. Perhaps we’ll all have telepathic implants and I’ll be able to view earthquakes via recordings of other people’s experiences. Mostly I just marvel at how the world is always changing, at how humans are always changing, and at how surprising and fascinating it can be to observe the process.