Twitter and the San Diego Fires: An Interview with Nate Ritter

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" But in the end, it's a tool. It's a tool that engages the people who are watching what you're doing. Every business, every nonprofit, every organization, and even every person has their own network of people that they're dealing with, you can call them followers or friends or whatever. It's a way to engage with them and tell them what you're doing on a quick basis. Especially if the people who you're dealing with also engage using Twitter, then you have an automatic tool that you're both using. It's like both having cell phones, or both having faxes, or both having email addresses. It makes sense."

Keeping with the Twitterery theme of this week, below is the edited transcript of an interview I did with Nate Ritter before this month's Net Tuesday San Francisco, where he presented. Nate is a web developer and consultant who used Twitter as a help center during the San Diego fires. You can follow Nate's tweets at twitter.com/nateritter. The audio interview is available on the NetSquared Podcast.

Nate Ritter: My name is Nate Ritter and I'm a web developer, strategy consultant, and entrepreneur. I'm on the Board of Directors for a nonprofit called Giving Anonymously.

What I did with Twitter was actually completely by accident. I ended up seeing that fires were happening, saw the news, and all that kind of thing. It started to get bigger and bigger and bigger. I didn't have experience in the previous fires that were happening in San Diego, but I knew about them. It was such a large scale thing.

I thought, "Well, if this is going to turn into anything like it was a few years ago, then somebody's got to be putting out some kind of information on Twitter; I thought, could be me, who knows?" [laughs]

I started actually to blog, and I ended up finding too much information to blog--it went so fast--so I ended up using Twitter because it was so quick, short, to the point, just facts, and I could post a zillion times, so it was really fast. I was using it as an experiment more than anything, just to see how much could be done.

People started picking up on it. I started getting people following me. I got emails and text messages from people as far away, actually, as India, which was completely amazing to me. At that point, I was like "OK, I am committed."

So I kept going, and kept Twittering, and eventually ended up with around 350 followers by the end. I started with 20, I think, because I didn't know what I was doing before. Everybody pretty much who was there was looking for information on what was happening in the fires. What came out of that was, I spent three days, 12 hours a day, taking about two 15-minute breaks anytime within that time period just to rest my hands, get something to drink, take a break for a second. Otherwise, I spent about one time per minute, sometimes a little bit more, posting information.

Then I would spend any in-between time multitasking, trying to either find more information, listening to the radio, TV. By the end, I had a hotline set up that had a--basically it was a local number that people could call for witness type of calls.

At the end, I don't know how it exactly all transpired, but by the end the results were somebody from Wired picked up on it. They wrote one article; it turned into a second article. CNET picked up on it, NPR picked up on it, Journalism.co.uk picked up on it, [laughing] and so it just kind of turned into this big deal. And you know, I'm really an average guy, [laughing] so it turned out pretty fun. Unfortunate for the fires, but fun in terms of being able to contribute to the community.

I actually had a boss of mine who I used to work for tell me that he--probably one of the biggest compliments from him--tell me that he was following my Twitter feed because it was the only information that he could find.

And so, that was really valuable, in the sense that I was able to give information to people locally and provide the information in a timely manner to get them evacuated, or find the places that they could help if they weren't being evacuated, and things like that.

Britt Bravo: If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?

NR: The only thing that I would have done differently is actually try and gather more people to help. There were people who were doing their own thing, and it was good to be separated, because we were doing separate things. One guy was posting photos, another person was basically running around the area and looking at what streets were closed, from a first person perspective, and things like that.

Those were great and they work really well, and they were fine for their own separate areas. KBPS, the local NPR station was--we were mirroring each other's data a lot and things like that.

They were great to be separate, but at the same time, it would have been nice to be able to collaborate, and towards the end, that started to happen, mostly by people just saying, "Hey, I've got these photos, you should tell people about it." Or, "Hey, I've got this map that I just created, you should tell people about it."

So that helped, just leaving my source as being the one streamline place; mine and KBPS. But I would have liked to have had some help. I would have liked to have had more people join in on that feed, and I would have liked to have had an aggregated source of places, that wasn't maybe only Twitter.

It would have been good to have all those feeds, like photos, videos, and everything else, put into one place. So, if I needed to reference something, I could reference a particular URL, but it would always be the same location so you would always get the same format. That's what I'm going to highlight today, as a quick and easy way to do that.

BB: What's your favorite story from your experience?

NR: My favorite is India! [laughs] I got emails from Vermont and Florida and all over, but India is on the other side of the world. Just the fact that they even knew that this was a feed, and I could help them, that alone was just amazing.

That just blew me away. I was one hundred percent committed after that, because I was like, "Holy cow, people from other countries are seeing this. It has got to be important, and it's very personal to these people."

BB: How do you think nonprofits can use Twitter for their work?

NR: Nonprofits are so different. It's like saying, "How does business use Twitter?" Well, that's such a broad question. It's really hard to define exactly. From my experience, especially nonprofits that are very geographical in orientation, they can definitely use this kind of thing for disasters, and emergencies, and those kinds of things.

I've seen other things come out just recently about folks who are using Twitter for fundraising. That is an outstanding use of Twitter.

But in the end, it's a tool. It's a tool that engages the people who are watching what you're doing. Every business, every nonprofit, every organization, and even every person has their own network of people that they're dealing with, you can call them followers or friends or whatever. It's a way to engage with them and tell them what you're doing on a quick basis. Especially if the people who you're dealing with also engage using Twitter, then you have an automatic tool that you're both using. It's like both having cell phones, or both having faxes, or both having email addresses. It makes sense.

Outside of that, the only other benefit that I would say would be, that in times of crisis, where servers can go down, like KPBS, it serves as a really good scalable website that gives very strict information out piece by piece. It keeps the fluff away, and it keeps it very factual. In those cases, it can be really, really useful.

BB: As a Twitter power user, is there anything you wish you could change or add to how Twitter works?

NR: It's hard to say, because, for instance, the features that I really like, such as being able to add photos and things like that, can be done through a service like Pounce, which is a Twitter copycat with some additional features.

For myself, I think Twitter--because it has network effects, because people are already there, and that's who you're interacting with, I think that's the biggest part of it.

In terms of features, the only thing I would really add is the support for hashtags. Hashtags are just a way to give contextual relevance to whatever it is that you're posting about, instead of having to do a search, like back in the original days. Even sometimes with things like Google, you end up with things you don't care about when you do a search.

It's the same concept with Twitter. But hashtags actually give you meaning and give you context behind whatever you're posting. So, support for hashtags would be great. But even if that support doesn't come from Twitter, it's already coming from outside sources, from people who are using the API to develop on. So, that stuff is going to happen anyway. I'm pretty content with the way it is.

BB: Is there anything else you want listeners to know about your experience, or how they can use Twitter for their work?

NR: I think the most important piece is that if you have a need to get information out quickly and if you have a need to get information out on things like cell phones, text messages, and stuff like that, then this is a perfect tool. I haven't seen very many, if any, other tools quite like it right now. It's kind of standing on its own.

Outside of that, like I said, it comes back to the vague, "What's good for business, what's good for nonprofits?" I think the best thing is that it's immediate data, and, because it's only 140 characters, you only get to give the facts. You don't get to be all fluffy and put your opinion in it, and spin it, and that kind of thing. You get facts. I like that, because you get rid of all the extra stuff.