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Tweeting the water story

Posted by Mark Leccese  May 3, 2010 04:47 PM

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Gatekeeper_water.jpgI’ve been on Twitter (@mleccese) daily for a couple of months now trying to figure out if there’s any useful journalism there. I’ve learned that nearly every tweet is inane, self-promotional (I’ll be self-promoting this blog post on Twitter as soon as I finish it, as a matter of fact) or falls into the tiresome hey-world-look-at-me or check-out-this-web-page-I-think-is-cool category.

Then, on Saturday, when the water pipe in Weston went boom, I found some useful journalism on Twitter: A combination of reports from Boston-area Twitter users and tweets from a few blogs and mainstream media outlets kept the story up to date minute by minute.

I was settling down on sofa Saturday to watch the Bruins and picked up my smartphone to see if there was anything useful in the pregame chatter on Twitter (nope) when I saw this, tweeted at 12:16 p.m. by the redoubtable Adam Gaffin of the local website Universal Hub (Twitter: @universalhub), with a link to the story on Boston.com.

Whoa: All of greater Boston served by MWRA asked to stop using water immediately: Aqueduct sprung a leak.

Three minutes later the editor of Boston.com (@dabeard) tweeted this, with a link to the same story on Boston.com.

BREAKING: Huge MWRA leak sending 8m gallons water/hour into Charles River, Boston residents urged to conserve.

Six minutes later, @dabeard tweeted this with a link to the MWRA Web site.

[Here’s] the stop-using-water order for Boston and all Mass. communities east of Weston, after ‘catastrophic’ pipeline rupture.

Three minutes after that, @universalhub tweeted:

MWRA now saying: BOIL WATER BEFORE CONSUMING.

I dumped out my glass of water and replaced it with a bottle of water from the fridge.

That's the news value of Twitter: anyone with a smartphone in hand who was away from a computer and not tuned to the local TV news bulletins got the news instantaneously and was directed to a website with more complete information.

Within a few minutes, the Twitter crowd jumped in with its own reporting. At 2:08, @universalhub retweeted a panicky question from @sup3rmark.

Does anybody know how the boil-water order affects restaurants? Should they not be serving fountain soda?

Ten minutes later the answer came from the same person who asked it.

Just got confirmation from MWRA — NO SODA FOUNTAINS!

Within the hour, Boston.com blogger Garrett Quinn (@garrettquinn) created a hashtag, a number sign followed by a string of letters with no spaces that allows Twitter users to easily search all the tweets on a particular topic. The hashtag was (and is) #aquapacalypse. (We'll give him a pass on the spelling this one time.) UPDATE: At some point over the weekend, a new hashtag with corrected spelling — #aquapocalypse — was created. Adam Gaffin e-mailed to tell me there are more tweets using that hashtag.

As Farhad Manjoo of Slate.com pointed out a couple of weeks ago, we should put aside all the “high-minded rhetoric” about Twitter as a world-changer because it obscures Twitter’s “main selling point, which is that it’s a lot of fun.”

Out of the thousands and thousands of tweets with the hashtag #aquapacalypse (or #aquapocalypse) posted since Saturday, very few — very few — had any value to anyone other than the people with their thumbs on the keyboard. But to follow the tweets at @universalhub as Saturday turned into Sunday was oddly fascinating, sometimes informative and … fun.

Woman at Hyde Park Shaw’s had an entire cart and then some of Poland Spring. What a waterpig.
Just got out of MarketBasket Somerville: normal shopping level — for when there’s a forecast of 24” of snow.
Police called in to quell water-frenzied mob at BJ’s in Revere.
Just showered in our non-potable water. Just to be extra-safe, I boiled the Pert before lathering.
BU trucking in 34K bottles of water, several tons of ice a day, WILL have coffee during final exams.
Why are we conserving untreated dirty water? Is there a shortage?

Got to Twitter.com, type “#aquapocalypse” into the search box, and you’ll get thousands of tweets. Banal would be an accurate word for most of them, but pick through and you’ll find not only some news but some smiles.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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