The earthquake that hit the East Coast just before 2pm ET on August 23 might have caused little damage, but it kicked up quite the storm on Twitter.
Within one minute of the earthquake hitting Virginia, Twitter saw 40,000 earthquake-related tweets, and at their peak earthquake tweets reached 5,000 tweets-per-second – more than Osama bin Laden’s death and on par with the earthquake in Japan.
So with all of the mind-boggling stats coming out of this relatively harmless geological event, one question remains: why were Twitter users so obsessed with this particular earthquake?
This was not a big tragedy, a frightening event or a destructive force. The earthquake on the East Coast this week was a little ground shake, with some chairs perhaps being knocked over near the epicenter, but not much more. However, if you take a look at the sentiment analysis around #earthquake, which was a trending topic during the quake, you’ll begin to see why Twitter appeared to be obsessed with this small tremor.
NetBase, a social media analysis company, found that of the more than 450,000 tweets containing #earthquake posted to Twitter, there were less than 15,000 with “high precision” negative or positive sentiment.
Of those tweets, 8,210 were negative: tweets about the earthquake being scary, causing traffic delays or messing with cell phones.
But what’s more interesting, to me, is the fact that 5,168 were positive in sentiment: people tweeting about the earthquake being “hilarious”, “exciting” and “perfect for Twitter”.
As anyone who was on Twitter during the quake knows, people jumped on the fact that it was trending to comment on how ridiculous it was that it was trending. While this is all very meta, it points to the power of the echo chamber on Twitter: by making fun of something trending, you’ll only making it trend for longer.
Another reason why Twitter was so focused on the earthquake must’ve been because of the mainstream media’s slow uptake. Twitter was the first source of earthquake news, by several minutes. Most mainstream outlets didn’t get their first quake story up until about 20 minutes after the quake had struck – meaning there was a vacuum in time where people had to use Twitter to learn about what had happened.
And finally, there were several reports of cellular networks going down or becoming clogged for some time following the earthquake. Many people couldn’t access their phones, so they turned to their data, and to Twitter, instead.
It’s interesting to note that Twitter’s response time doubled during the earthquake, going from 2.16 seconds normally to 4.17 seconds in the five minutes after the quake hit, according to SmartBear Software web performance monitoring site AlertSite. However, Twitter did not go down.
So between tweeting about how ridiculous it is to tweet about the earthquake, the lack of immediate mainstream coverage and the clogged cellphone networks, it looks like a number of factors came together to make this earthquake – which was small and relatively harmless itself – one of the major events in Twitter’s 5 year history.
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