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May 21st, 2009
Tweeting With Meaning

by Aaron Ernst

Twitter has gone mainstream, with Oprah Winfrey and Ashton Kutcher each racking up over a million followers. Critics have panned the microblogging site as narcissistic at best, but media-savvy people around the world have adopted Twitter for far more serious purposes. Moldovans used Twitter to organize protests against fraudulent elections, witnesses to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai kept the world updated via Twitter, and citizens in Myanmar used Twitter to circumvent media censorship and report on the true severity of last year’s deadly cyclone.

Humanitarian relief workers in particular have taken to Twitter’s short messaging technology. Its 140 character limit and ability to reach multiple people simultaneously have proved extremely useful for communicating in rapidly-evolving situations.

The American Red Cross uses Twitter to post real-time information about disasters, recently using it to respond to the Jesusita Fire in Santa Barbara. “I received a request for information from someone worried about a friend in Santa Barbara” says Wendy Harman, Social Media Manager at the Red Cross. “I was able to point her to #jususita and @sbredcross,” information that allowed the person to confirm her friend was safe.

Other relief organizations are following suit. Some use Twitter to disseminate news related to humanitarian affairs while others use it to rally supporters to their cause.

Kevin Toomer works in Pakistan, providing security services to NGO workers at the United Nations and Care International. He uses Twitter to keep clients updated about developing security situations. In this audio podcast, he talks to Wide Angle about how he has integrated Twitter into his deadly work.

Sorry, this video is not available.

And of course, WIDE ANGLE is on Twitter. Make sure to follow us for news updates from around the world and for information about the show.

Twitter Links: See how non-profits are using Twitter, check your Twitter footprint, see who has the most followers on Twitter, search this handy dictionary of twitter terminology, search pictures posted to Twitpic, and see stats on the different interfaces used to access Twitter.

If you want to kill an hour of your life, check out Twittervision to see evidence of that growth in real time.

  • Jeff Power, Global Hope Network

    Well done, Aaron. This phenomenon isn’t a gimmick or fad. It’s a breakthrough, I believe, in that the technology helps us be MORE connected with the people we’re helping. I tweeted 48hrs in January and people graciously gave over $10,000 ($10 at a time) to help build a store that our AIDS orphans in Ethiopia could run. Then, 3 weeks later, volunteers and I did a live videocast from Ethiopia while we were building it! It was a mere 3 weeks from giving to seeing. That’s connection. (BTW I’m tweeting again for another African project June 17-19. )

  • Abby Ravera

    Hi Aaron, Twitter is proving greatly useful for generating social awareness.

    Our twitter profile for the UN World Food Programme (@fighthunger) has grown rapidly – and proven invaluable for garnering support, and feedback from supporters.

    Twitter is great for it’s immediacy, invaluable during emergencies, but also for the direct dialogue it enables with supporters!

    (Ps. is also a really good directory for finding nonprofits on Twitter.)

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