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September 02, 2008

In case of disaster use Twitter? You might want to try something else.

Much has been made about using SMS/microblogging phenomenon Twitter for disaster communications, and it's come back to the forefront with Hurricane Gustav in the news. Heck, even yours truly has made much of it over the years. I've been re-thinking my recommendation, however. If you're thinking about using Twitter as a crisis communication tool, please keep this in mind: Twitter is highly prone to outages.

It is so prone to downtime that there is a common phrase in the collective Twitter lexicon to describe the phenomenon: Fail Whale. And there's even, an entire website devoted to answering the single most important question in the universe, in the most simple and elegant fashion.

So look, here are the pros and cons of using Twitter for disaster communications:


  • Twitter is quick and easy one to many communications.
  • SMS messages are more likely to get through than calls placed to cell phones when the wireless phone infrastructure is under stress.
  • Communications can be posted from cell phones or from computers with a web connection.
  • Even when the electricity is out, cell phone towers often continue operating, so communications in an affected crisis zone is still feasible.
  • has 1.28 percent downtime. By web standards, that's a lot of downtime. In fact, it's more than double the amount of downtime than the next-worst performing social networking website. And by the way, this doesn't include API and mobile use: Nobody really knows for sure what the downtime rate is for those arms of Twitter.
  • Twitter is more likely to crash when major news events are unfolding. Anything that might cause your association to initiate a disaster communications plan might very well qualify as a major news event.
Clearly there are more pros than cons, just be aware of the risks. All the pros suddenly become irreducibly irrelevant when you're faced with the fail whale. If you find yourself in a crisis, you don't want downtime to cause you more headaches -- or worse. It's okay if Twitter drops the tweet announcing the location of the post-convention happy hour. It's not okay if people are counting on Twitter to keep them from harm.

In defense of Twitter, their website uptime is showing improvement, but needs to show a lot more to be a dependable crisis communications channel.

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