I've been musing about Twitter again. The short 140 character message format is good but in itself nothing special.
Twitter seems to the vibe of the week at the moment, with Stephen Fry tweeting he's stuck in a list to the recent twestival. However there's enough outside of the inane and self-obsessed to suggest twitter is a useful technology.
The real enabling power of Twitter is the ecology around it - multiple easy ways and tools to get your messages into twitter from your phone, or via email from a Vt100 window, and tto distribute messages by a feed to your facebook page, to a sidebar on your blog page - just look to the right ;-) - etc etc.
And it's the social aspect that's key. Just as facebook's proposition is to let you know what your friends and acquaintances are doing twitter lets you tell them easily what you're doing, and as they are people likely to have a passing interest in what you're doing the message will get out.
So as in Mumbai, as in the Victorian bushfires, twitter got the message out, not because of the technology but because of the ecology around it.
And this has implications. In the wake of the Virginia tech shootings there was a massive push by a number of universities to implement an emergency contact system that basically sent a lot of sms (text) message to people's phones.
Doing this isn't perfect. It takes time to send several thousand sms messages, and in the case of somewhere like a university where you have a large number of recipients in a single cell, over load the cell, and cause a distribution backlog. Not good for a time critical message.
A message pushed out over social networks, pushed out to status messages on websites is probably just as effective. This doesn't necessarily mean that you don't try and send sms's, but that information should be pushed out as many separate ways as possible, including as an rss feed which can then be refactored and redistributed.
Certainly this would be effective for system status messages and other less critical information, knowing "it's down" or even "it's still down" is possibly good enough. What I can't quite sort out in my mind is how good twitter and the like are at pushing out time critical information - after all "we're all ok" or even "the end of the street is on fire" are very different messages from "evacuate now" where in the latter case timeliness is critical.
It's like the difference between "campus is closed due to storm damage" and "lock yourself in, nutter with gun on campus".
The trouble is that it is the ones where timeliness is most important there's more risks of overloading the distribution network ...