The news from Chile on Saturday morning, appearing on the Associated Press app on my iPhone as I read it half-asleep, was tragic but distant: An earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale had rocked central Chile and the capital city of Santiago, and dozens were already confirmed dead.
But it was already clear that the disaster was spreading across more than one-quarter of the world in the form of a tsunami. Though the quake had done more damage in Chile, the wave was traveling to nearly every shore on the Pacific Ocean.
It was the kind of moment that the Internet, especially Twitter, was made for. An event that would affect millions of people was developing in real time. Only the Internet had the range and scale to carry a collective conversation about it.
Online mainstream media outlets covered the immediate news and reported when the tsunami, traveling at the speed of an airliner, was forecast to hit various places. They showed useful graphics from official sources, such as a color-coded map from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of how the wave was expected to spread. Some TV stations in threatened areas streamed their news reports live.
From our apartment in San Francisco, we checked in on Hawaii, a favorite vacation spot and home to some of our loved ones. Parts of the state had been devastated by tsunamis in the past, and the islands were bracing for a major impact. We found several TV stations streaming their uninterrupted news coverage of warnings and evacuations and plugged them into a bigger screen. Over DSL (digital subscriber line), via Wi-Fi to an iMac, which was plugged into our HDTV, we spent the morning watching Hawaiian TV on our own TV. It was a bit more blurry when blown up to full screen, but perfectly watchable.
Then I looked beyond the formal news outlets and checked in with Twitter, entering the search term "tsunami." Every time I looked up at the TV for a minute or so and then back to my PC, there was a new update: "2,273 more tweets since you started searching." "2,413 more tweets since you started searching." Those were only the tweets that included "tsunami" in Roman characters. The term was "trending" as a common search term closely behind the leading word, "Chile." Thousands of people were experiencing the fear and anticipation together, their 140-character-or-less messages bouncing around the ocean as the unstoppable played out.
"Tsunami warnings in place across New Zealand's east coast. Might pay to stay away from the beach today," reelclever wrote.
"Ok the Tsunami watch is for La Jolla?!? That's very close," LadyStar88 wrote, presumably from California.
A lot of the traffic consisted of simple news updates with links to online news sources or webcams, as well as endless retweets of those same updates. But there were also calls for prayers for the safety of Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines and other places in the wave's path, as well as simple hopes that everyone would be all right.
And as we watched the "local" coverage from Hawaii, soon it was clear that we weren't the only ones. Cable news channels were streaming coverage from some of the same cameras and stations we were watching, and pretty soon there was a sort of "meta-conversation" to complement the global group chat about the tsunami itself.
A bug crawling around the lens of HawaiiNewsNow's camera overlooking Hilo Bay briefly became an overnight sensation. A camera trained on deserted Waikiki Beach caught a foolhardy man wading into the surf right before the wave was expected to hit the state. The local newscasters expressed concern and warned viewers again to stay out of the water, while on Twitter, people reported -- appalled -- that CBS was laughing at the man.
The forecast time of impact came and went. As the whole world seemingly then knew, a tsunami doesn't come in like a giant breaker but in successive waves that raise the level of the ocean. But watching the static scene of Hilo Bay, we hadn't seen any sign of that.
Pretty soon, on Twitter, joyunexpected wrote, "starting to sound like CNN is disappointed a tsunami hasn't hit yet. Anyone else notice that? The hell?"
I finally knew the event was imminent when I saw an intriguing Twitter message.
"RealtorRon RT @GordonDickson: Tsunami wave just passed a buoy http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=51407 #hitsunami" The link led to a site with data from an NOAA buoy in the ocean just west of the Big Island. The handy Google Map showing its location announced the tsunami had arrived.
Soon there were reports that the water was receding from Hilo Bay, though we couldn't tell from the image on the TV station's camera. A little while later, we saw deep and fast tides start surging in and out. Ordinary people all around the state had taken to high ground and had more vantage points than the hard-working media could ever achieve. Lacking any cameras on Kauai, farther up the chain of islands, the local anchors did their best to tap into social media: "People of Kauai, please Tweet us," one anchor said.
In the end, as most readers know from either traditional or new media, the tsunami was thankfully minor in Hawaii, as well as in Japan and most other areas in its path. But for a few hours, the flood of social media swept across one side of our planet, a set of waves surging toward everyone online. And like a tidal wave taking man-made detritus out to sea, it also showed us what our lives are made of. Sometimes, it's a 16-year-old pop singer.
"JDBsFavGirls RT @bieberarmy: Its crazy how theres all this crisis going on around the world with the earthquake & tsunami, but Justin Bieber is still trending... haha<3"