The kindness of strangers

A cheery page lead in The Sunday Times for which my colleague Rosie and I tracked down some great examples of Twitter saving the day.

Many thanks to my tweeting beekeeper Debbie Williams at Broadway Manor Cottages.

Full text of the article is on the Sunday Times website here, and after the fold.

#help! Tweets are the new 999 service

People are using the social networking site as a forum to offer neighbours and complete strangers practical and emotional help

Rosie Kinchen and Cal Flyn
The Sunday Times, 26 June 2011

David Cameron may be struggling to explain the big society but Twitter has possibly provided the answer. Tweets are being used by the public to find stolen cars, rescue stranded travellers — and even locate homes for beehives.

People are using the social networking site as a forum to offer neighbours and complete strangers practical and emotional help.

The phenomenon is so powerful that a research team of sociologists and physicists have received public funding to study its potential for helping society to function in a crisis.

Earlier this month, racing fans helped Bedfordshire police retrieve a stolen £80,000 sports car after a police appeal on Twitter. The custom-made 1JZ Subaru Impreza was taken from Santa Pod Raceway near Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Twitter and Facebook users sent in pictures of the car and details of sightings, which allowed the police to track it down to a garage near Maidenhead, Berkshire, the next day.

In March, a virtual neighbourhood watch helped the police arrest a pickpocket in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. PC Jen Pulley tweeted a CCTV image of a suspect and he was traced within a few days. Pulley, who runs the force’s Twitter feed, said: “It’s been so successful because it’s not just corporate messages, people feel like they’re talking to a real person.”

Debbie and Ross Williamson run Broadway Manor Cottages in the Cotswolds. Last summer they responded to a Twitter appeal by the HelpSaveBees campaign, seeking suitable land for new beehives .

Debbie Williamson said: “We saw the campaign asking for people with gardens to get in touch and we had read about the terrible decline in bees, so we thought ‘why not?’” A local beekeeper, Chris Wells, now keeps two hives in a field behind their orchards.

Last week, India Knight, a columnist for The Sunday Times, tracked down her stolen bicycle after she tweeted a picture of it and a neighbour, whom she knew only by sight, tweeted to let her know it had been abandoned in her street in north London.

Mark Davis, a sociologist and director of the Bauman Institute at Leeds University, believes Twitter is providing a substitute for traditional communities. “People don’t feel they have the time to give back as they once did, but sites like Twitter allow us to show that we still care about things.”

Davis argues that these virtual communities aren’t entirely positive. “They are filling a gap formed by less face-to-face contact,” he warned.

While many rely on their own Twitter followers to provide help, others enlist the networks of celebrities — or celebrities seize the opportunity to jump aboard.

Earlier this month, Alice Pyne, a 15-year-old from Ulverston in Cumbria, who is terminally ill with Hodgkin’s disease, tweeted a link to a “bucket list” of things she wants to do before she dies. Celebrities, including the pop singer Katy Perry and the author and presenter Stephen Fry, who has 2.7m followers, re-tweeted her list, inspiring people to come forward with offers to make her dreams come true.

Well-wishers have also used their combined strength in an emergency. Twitter users helped a courier, Michael Nash, 61, deliver a life-saving bone marrow transplant to Britain last year.

Nash, who volunteers for the Anthony Nolan Trust, was stranded in Brussels when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano paralysed air travel. The trust sent out a plea on Twitter asking for help to get him back to the UK.

Within 10 minutes, the message had been repeated 10,000 times and within an hour had been re-tweeted by 25,000 people. Tracey Sands, a spokesman for the trust, said: “We were bombarded with offers of help. People volunteered to give their Eurostar tickets or to pay whatever was necessary to buy him one.” Eurostar then responded, guaranteeing Nash a way home.

Academics are intrigued by the potential for harnessing these mass communities. John Preston, a professor of education at East London University, is part of the team investigating ways Twitter can help in emergencies. The research is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

“In an emergency people used to watch television or the radio and follow instructions,” he said. “Social media has changed that. Now they will talk to one another.”

The team has identified the stages when news spreads on Twitter, and the point at which people are prone to panic. This is the moment he believes authorities must step in with guidance. “We’re coming up to the London Olympics,” he said. “Many of the boroughs bordering the site are unprepared to use social media.”

140m tweets a day

Twitter has grown to have 200m members since its launch in 2006 by three members of staff at Odeo, a US technology company. It hosts 140m messages a day.

The average Twitter user is aged 31, compared with 33 for Facebook. Its popularity is growing most quickly among those aged 18 to 24, and 55% of Twitter users are women.

The majority of members only use the site to follow others, and the average member has only written one tweet. The pop singer Lady Gaga has the most followers at 11m.

Use of the site spikes during big events. When Michael Jackson died in 2009 its servers crashed when more than 100,000 tweets about his death were posted in just one hour.

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