Twitter's Office Fire-Safety Poster Is Perfect

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 9 2014 1:35 PM

Twitter's Office Fire-Safety Poster Is Perfect

"In case of fire, exit building before tweeting about it."

Vivian Schiller, the former NPR chief and top digital officer for NBC News, announced in October that she'd be joining Twitter as its "head of news." Wednesday was her first day at the office, and she was pleased to note that her co-workers appear to have their priorities in order:

As amusingly obvious as the poster's message might sound, it's almost certain that at least someone in the office would disobey it if a fire did break out. In fact, tweeting about emergencies and disasters in real time has been critical to Twitter's evolution almost from the beginning. As Nick Bilton recounted in Hatching Twitter, his book about the social network's origins, a minor Bay Area earthquake in Twitter's first months was actually a seminal moment in the company's understanding of how people might use it in the years to come:

It was just after eight o'clock one night in late August 2006 when [Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey's] phone vibrated on his office desk. He reached over and saw a text message from Twitter, sent by [fellow co-founder Ev Williams], and started to read, "Did anyone just feel that eart—" but before he came to the end of the message, he felt his chair shake a little. ...
For Ev it was another clue in a theory he was developing about Twitter's role as a way to share news, not just status—Twitter as a communication network, not just a social network.

The same lesson hit home for the wider American public five years later, when people in the Washington, D.C. area were tweeting about a rare 5.8 earthquake in Virginia several seconds before the same quake was felt across New York and other points north. Twitter was so proud of this that it made an advertisement about it.

Twitter: Faster than earthquakes, sure, but perhaps not the best use of time in case of a fire.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.



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