Twitter, the microblogging Web site that enables users to post unlimited messages of 140 characters or less, became the fastest-growing Internet communication tool earlier this year, according to Nielsen Online. It reached 1.2 million unique visitors in May 2008 and 18.2 million this May, a more than fourteenfold increase (http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/nielsen-news/twitter-grows-1444-over-last-year-time-on-site-up-175). As with any general broadcast communication tool, Twitter can provide a helpful service to those with an interest in environmental and sustainability issues.
According to the preference of each Twitter user, messages disseminate either to a select private group (the account’s “followers”) or to the searchable public Web. In both cases, messages automatically appear on followers’ Twitter Web page or mobile devices. Any individual or organization representative can sign up for a free account. However, no account is needed to search all public Twitter streams at http://search.twitter.com/ and http://www.tweepz.com/. A search can provide realtime insight into a mixture of both public opinion and public relations spin on environmental issues. The advanced search features of these sites can be used to search specific Twitter fields, such as location, bio, and names mentioned. The usefulness of analyzing real-time data of this kind may be hard to imagine for those new to Twitter and may not yet be realized for environment-specific uses. A temporal-spatial model of Twitter posts (called “tweets”) during the 2009 Super Bowl of the U.S. National Football League, however, shows the potential of Twitter analysis: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/02/02/sports/20090202_superbowl_twitter.html.
Search results tend to be less dramatic in their raw state but can still be informative. An informal search on Monday, 13 July 2009, just after 5 p.m. Eastern Time, revealed 21 Twitter posts had appeared over a two-hour period on “cap and trade,” almost all of which made various points about the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act of 2009, H.R. 2454, a bill passed by the House on June 26 that would institute a cap-and-trade program to manage greenhouse gases (http://energycommerce.house.gov/, search for <Waxman Markey>). In the same time period, 180 tweets mentioned “H1N1,” 313 mentioned the virus’s more popular name “Swine Flu,” and 26 tweets used the keyword “EPA.”
While few Twitter searchers may be interested in conducting sophisticated analyses of tweets, many will want to see what specific individuals or organizations are saying. In the convention of Twitter, a username is written with an @ sign before it. For example, the EPA public relations office Twitter account is referred to as @usepanews, and its posts can be followed at http://twitter.com/usepanews. (In general, a user’s main Twitter page is found online by appending the username, without the @ symbol, to http://twitter.com/). Tweets often carry a short link to more details on a subject, as is the case with those on the EPA twitter stream.
When starting out as an active Twitter user, or when beginning to decipher tweets as a passive Twitter searcher or follower, it helps to develop a basic Twitter vocabulary. Writer and social media consultant Greg Pincus presents a simple and useful list at http://www.thehappyaccident.net/basic-twitter-terms. One important term for coordinated use of Twitter is the hashtag, an agreed-on word, phrase, acronym, or abbreviation following a hash (#) symbol that users insert in a tweet to allow easy searching for or networking around tweets about a given topic. In effect, it is metadata included in the text (http://twitter.pbworks.com/Hashtags). Popular environmental hashtags include #climate and #green. In fact, one of the earliest uses of a Twitter hashtag was environmental: tracking wildfires in southern California in October 2007. The twitter account @sandiegofire tracked the use of the hashtag #sandiegofire as well as other relevant terms during the fire and subsequent recovery, and it now provides a historical record of that event. Another interesting use of hashtags is for conferences. Attendees sometimes agree on a hashtag to promote networking and real-time blogging of conference proceedings. A search for the hashtag #esriuc, for example, shows tweets on the GIS software company ESRI’s International User Conference in San Diego (held this year 13–17 July).
People who tweet include members of Congress (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Members_of _Congress_who_Twitter) and governors of U.S. states (sixteen as of February 2009: http://randyhaddock.com/post/79194877). Tweetcongress.org provides a stream of posts by members of the U.S. Congress for constituents’ information and contact information for constituents to encourage congressional tweeting. Tweetminster.co.uk provides a similar service for the United Kingdom. In some instances, Twitter has revealed the authentic voice of politicians unbound and unpolished by their public relations staff. (http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/capress/090612/world/us_politicians_tweet_1). Interestingly, FEMA head Craig Fugate (@disastersrus) has not tweeted since his confirmation. He may be attempting to avoid uncensored tweet gaffes such as that of U.S. Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-MI, @petehoekstra), who blew the cover on his supposedly secret trip to Iraq via Twitter (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/feb/11/twitter-pete-hoekstra-iraq-trip).
Besides the EPA, environment- and sustainability-related U.S. agencies on Twitter include the National Park Service (@NatlParkService), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (@CDCemergency), and FEMA (@femainfocus). The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration uses Twitter for a number of applications, including educating students about oceans (@oceanexplorer). Govtwit.com is a directory of government and related Twitter users. Internationally, the United Nations Environmental Programme has begun an active Twitter program, @UNEPandYou, as has the World Health Organization, @whonews.
Environmental nongovernmental organizations using Twitter include the International Union for Conservation of Nature (@IUCN), Earthwatch (@tweettheheat), Greenpeace (@greenpeaceusa), The Nature Conservancy (@nature_org), the World Resources Institute (@worldresources), and the World Wildlife Fund (@WWFUS).
Twitter also provides a forum for practitioners in particular academic and policy fields and news organizations covering specialized topics. In climate, for example, Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and lead author of the U.S. Global Change Research Program report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, tweets as @KatharineHayhoe. Richard Klein, a climate policy analyst for the Stockholm Environment Institute and a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has begun tweeting as @rjtklein. Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a news service on multilateral environmental negotiations, used Twitter to post news from the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Bonn, Germany, as @enbclimate.
Locally, police and fire departments are beginning to employ Twitter to keep the public informed of incidents, a use that is likely to mean more active official emergency responders’ participation in disaster tweeting. In the United States, fire departments on Twitter include Los Angeles (@LAFD) and San Diego (@SDFD). Police departments include Boston (@Boston_Police) and Phoenix (@phoenixpolice).
Twitter is already being used for political action against governments, and it is likely that future applications will include environmental political action if they do not already. Protesters in Moldova used Twitter to organize a political protest against the Communist government and mobilize international support (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/08/world/europe/08moldova.html). In Iran, members used Twitter to attempt to foil crackdown of authorities on communication regarding election protests. For example, on 16 June, a Twitter user apparently in Iran asked international followers to change their locations to Iran in their Twitter profile, hoping to make it easier for authentic Iranian protesters’ messages to get through (see the 6:33 pm update at http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/16/latest-updates-on-irans-disputed-election).
The downside of the fluidity that Twitter allows, however, is that it can be difficult to determine whether people who tweet are who and where they claim to be. For example, the Wall Street Journal has reported on fake business Twitter accounts (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124623159206366203.html). In response to episodes such as these, Twitter is beta testing “verified accounts,” for which Twitter representatives have contacted the person or entity that the account represents to vouch for its authenticity (http://twitter.com/help/verified).
Twitter is but one of a number of emerging social media, many of which already affect environmental work. Terri Willard (@taikod) of the International Institute for Sustainable Development has written a briefing paper, “Social Networking and Governance for Sustainable Development” (http://www.iisd.org/pdf/2009/social_net_gov.pdf), that places Twitter inside a much larger context. Willard posits three key technologies that enable the “social web” and make it a potential force for sustainability: the prevalence of handheld computing and communication devices; the ease with which individuals can post, find, and comment on each other’s videos, images, words, and other content; and the potential of social networking sites, including Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn.
Environmental subject librarians are a good starting point for new resources to explore on the Web, in Twitter, and in the evolving social information setting more broadly. Some use Twitter to connect with a broad constituency. Anne Less, a librarian with the U.S. Green Building Council, tweets using the handle @alessismore. Lenora A. Oftedahl, a librarian with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, tweets as @StreamNetLib. Anne Moser is head librarian and head Tweeter at Wisconsin’s Water Library (@WiscWaterLib).
George E. Clark is the environmental research librarian at the Harvard College Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @georgeclark. Thanks to @freegovinfo and @reblakeley for suggestions of a few resources for this column.