Infographic Of The Day: How The Virginia Earthquake Spread On Twitter

We've already seen that Twitter can be a useful predictor of stock market swings, a movie's box-office sales, and even outbreaks of swine flu. But the earthquake last week revealed yet another interesting possibility: Twitter activity managed to show how intense the earthquake actually was, up and down the East Coast. (I know, I know, all you want to talk about this morning is Hurricane Irene. Tough luck, brah. Good infographics take time to produce.)

This wasn't really what the data viz team at SocialFlow set out to find — and indeed, they don't seem to have quite noticed this message within the data. But their infographic is really something to behold. It shows tweets spreading across the country in the 80 seconds immediately after the earthquake hit; the rate of twitter activity is color-coded from red (most intense) to blue (middling intense) to green (least intense).

And here is how the Twitter activity played out at 10, 30, 50, and 80 seconds (note the expanding ring, which shows how far the earthquake's shock wave has traveled):

[Click here to view interactive version]

Notice anything there? No? Well, let's just think through what you'd expect to see: As the earthquake's shock wave spreads, you'd think that each metro area would be reacting with the same sort of intensity you saw at its epicenter in Virginia. After all, each successive ring of people is getting freaked out all fresh. But that's not happening. As the earthquake travels along, the intensity of people's reactions to it is actually decreasing. What on earth is going on here?

It seems that somehow people further and further from the epicenter are finding the earthquake less and less interesting. The most obvious reason is this: For one, the feeling of the earthquake isn't quite as dramatic, and the damage it's causing isn't as severe (if it even caused any damage at all; New York, for example, was totally unharmed). So people are tweeting less about earthquake when it feels less threatening. Let me repeat that: They're tweeting less when the earth quake feels less threatening. That sounds rather innocuous, but that single insight allows you to see the chart in a totally different way. For one, the map above actually doesn't just show the spread of earthquake-related tweeting, but actually the emotional impact and physical damage. Human beings, processing the information about the earthquake, are basically acting as sensors, as SocialFlow elegantly puts it.

In the future, this realization could be applied in potentially remarkable ways. How predictive could Twitter be of a natural disaster's impact? Could FEMA, for example, use Twitter maps to survey for damage and find people in distress? And how granular can this data get? Hopefully, we'll see some data soon as it applies to Hurricane Irene...

[The guys over at SocialFlow emailed to say that color in the charts above actually just indicates the distance a tweet was from the epicenter. Meaning that much of my interpretation is null and void, so I've marked it up with a strike-through. They did, however, point out that I was on the right track in pointing out emotional intensity, albeit in a slightly odd way: Those who experienced the earthquake wrote much different sorts of tweets than those who did not. 53% of Seattleites, for example, used exclamation points in their tweets about the earthquake, as opposed to 94% of Washingtonians.—CK]

[Check out the interactive version here. Warning: It's a very heavy download.]

Add New Comment


  • Matthew Dubins

    How did they code the intensity of each individual tweet?  Was this a subjective evaluation?  Once they had the intensity coding for each tweet, how did they determine colour of the circle?  If colour refers to a summary of the intensity of many tweets, does the size of the circle refer to frequency of tweets on the topic of the earthquake?  What does transparency versus opacity represent?  Too many questions remain for this infographic.

  • Generic42

    Jesse - Remember Colorado had an Earthquake the night before and all the location data may not be exact.  That might be why you are seeing the "future" tweets out there.

  • johnvlane

    Is it possible the decrease in tweets happened was also informed by people feeling the news had already been covered (to go along with the lowered intensity of the physical and emotional impact)?

    In political elections, we've already seen how votes that are reported on the East Coast can affect voter turn out in the West. Folks in California, for instance, may see results from New York, Florida, etc. and assume things are already decided, so why bother? I think the same thing might be at work here.

    Either way, as one of the people who contributed to the big red blob at the border of Virginia and North Carolina — because I turned to Twitter for first for "news" of what we'd just felt and to share our experience — I find this infographic study very interesting.

    Thanks for the write-up.


  • Eric Carter

    Thanks Cliff.

    I find this very fascinating! The internet is amazing and the social networks in my opinion are a social phenomena showing us just how connected we all truly are!

  • Jesse

    If I'm reading this info-graphic correctly, news of the earthquake was reaching places before the shockwave itself.

    Tweets from the future!

  • Ugo Belu

    This is interesting, but it should only hold true to certain extent. In a more serious disaster situation (with more damage to infrastructure), social media are obviously less able to play this role of impact/damage sensor. If it's so bad that people don't have electricity to power their devices, then there should be a notable drop-off once people's batteries run out of juice (or once service providers are strapped for resources to keep their operations online). Inch'Allah, we won't be forced to find out for real anytime soon.