How Twitter Predicted Philly’s Earthquake

Follow @phillymag today to see the Best of Philly Tweeter make jokes and foresee natural disasters (hello, Hurricane Irene!)

I knew the earthquake was coming.

No, I don’t have the perceptions of the animals at the National Zoo. I have Twitter.

About a minute before it struck Philadelphia, I read a few tweets from friends in D.C. saying they felt an earthquake. When we started to feel some vibrations on the 17th floor of the office building I work in, people were obviously frightened. What I remember saying was, “It’s obviously an earthquake!”

“Calm down, guys, everyone on Twitter says it’s just an earthquake!” isn’t very convincing, so I wasn’t able to calm anyone down. But I did know what was going on. I didn’t know it before Tuesday, but one good use for Twitter is as an earthquake early-warning system.

I find new uses for Twitter all the time. When I signed up, I figured it’d be just another Internet time waster I’d forget about in a few weeks. At one point I stopped tweeting altogether, deciding the 140-character microblogging service was pointless. Later, I figured out it was a good way to comment live on sporting events. I started having conversations with friends and colleagues, started trading jokes with virtual strangers and started posting animated .gifs. It became a news source, a way to find links to good blog posts, a place to laugh both at and with people. It became fun. It became a routine. I don’t use Facebook except to see which friends from high school and college got hot or fat, so Twitter is really my only source of real-time amusement.
I’ve been writing on the Internet since 1995. (I was 12.) I’ve put tens of thousands of free words on the Internet for nothing but my own amusement. People – suckers! – now pay me to put my words online most of the time, but it’s the free work that remains the most fun. And Twitter is the most fun free work I’ve ever done.

What’s weird is how much I actually work at it. I reject two or three ideas for every tweet I send. I think about interesting ways to fit thoughts into 140 characters without writing in pathetic text-speak far too often. I think learning to write in such a short space has improved my writing, but mostly I use Twitter to amuse myself. I work really hard at it, too, though I don’t really know why.

Oh, wait, I do: Vanity.

As part of that continued vanity, I will be taking over the @phillymag account for the day. I promise you the same kinds of things Philadelphia named me Best of Philly for: Cat photos, Milton Street jokes, screen-grabs from my television. No, wait! I promise you nothing. This is all about me and the stunt I’m stealing from Stephen Colbert.

Follow along with me on @phillymag today! At the very least I’ll let you know if we’re getting an earthquake.