Twitter debuts new emergency alert system

Steven Loeb · September 25, 2013 · Short URL:

Leveraging its position on the social media landscape, Twitter could become the go-to alert service

As we saw during the devastation during Hurricane Sandy last year, social media has played a key role in recent natural disasters. And Twitter plays a distinguished role, as compared to a service like Facebook.

Whereas Facebook became a key way for people to get in touch with loved ones, and let them know that they were alive and well, Twitter served as a place to get more real time information regarding both what was happening, and what to do in case of an emergency.

Now Twitter is looking leverage that key difference, and become the go-to place for people to get alerts and information during these types of disasters.

"Today, we’re launching Twitter Alerts, a new feature that brings us one step closer to helping users get important and accurate information during emergencies, natural disasters or when other communications services aren’t accessible," the company wrote in an announcement on Wednesday. 

 When an alert is sent out, it will be done so by SMS, and those who have the Twitter app on either Android or iOS will also get a push notification. They will also be marked with an orange bell. 

If a user simply decide to follow an organization, these alters will be posted to their Twitter feed, and appear as they would for any other tweet. To get the notification sent to them directly, a user has to subscribe to the agency in question. For example, a user has to go to and sign up to receive them.

Other organizations that already have the ability send out alerts include: the American Red Cross, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Department of Homeland Security and the US Department of the Interior, along with numerous local FEMA agencies. 

Other organizations that want to sign up can find out more here.

Twitter has no other agreements with these organizations; if an agency like FEMA decided that it wanted to advertise or promote an alert, it would have to go through the same channels that it would for another promoted tweet.

Twitter has experimented with emergency services before launching Lifeline in Japan in 2012, in the wake of the Fukushima earthquakes, and nuclear power disasters that followed. The service allowed Japanese citizens to find, and follow, accounts that will give them local information simply by searching their postal code.

There is no plan at this time to implement something similar in the United States, however.

With the increasing number of disasters that have been befalling the country lately, from the aforementioned hurricanes to the tornadoes that destroyed towns in Oklahoma this year, these alerts could turn Twitter into the defacto resource for getting information in a timely fashion. And that could lead to a boon in the number of users that decide to sign up simply for this purpose.

A Twitter spokesperson could not give me a prediction for the number of users that could potentially sign up for these alerts.

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What is Twitter?

Twitter is an online information network that allows anyone with an account to post 140 character messages, called tweets. It is free to sign up. Users then follow other accounts which they are interested in, and view the tweets of everyone they follow in their "timeline." Most Twitter accounts are public, where one does not need to approve a request to follow, or need to follow back. This makes Twitter a powerful "one to many" broadcast platform where individuals, companies or organizations can reach millions of followers with a single message. Twitter is accessible from, our mobile website, SMS, our mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, our iPad application, or 3rd party clients built by outside developers using our API. Twitter accounts can also be private, where the owner must approve follower requests. 

Where did the idea for Twitter come from?

Twitter started as an internal project within the podcasting company Odeo. Jack Dorsey, and engineer, had long been interested in status updates. Jack developed the idea, along with Biz Stone, and the first prototype was built in two weeks in March 2006 and launched publicly in August of 2006. The service grew popular very quickly and it soon made sense for Twitter to move outside of Odea. In May 2007, Twitter Inc was founded.

How is Twitter built?

Our engineering team works with a web application framework called Ruby on Rails. We all work on Apple computers except for testing purposes. 

We built Twitter using Ruby on Rails because it allows us to work quickly and easily--our team likes to deploy features and changes multiple times per day. Rails provides skeleton code frameworks so we don't have to re-invent the wheel every time we want to add something simple like a sign in form or a picture upload feature.

How do you make money from Twitter?

There are a few ways that Twitter makes money. We have licensing deals in place with Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft's Bing to give them access to the "firehose" - a stream of tweets so that they can more easily incorporate those tweets into their search results.

In Summer 2010, we launched our Promoted Tweets product. Promoted Tweets are a special kind of tweet which appear at the top of search results within, if a company has bid on that keyword. Unlike search results in search engines, Promoted Tweets are normal tweets from a business, so they are as interactive as any other tweet - you can @reply, favorite or retweet a Promoted Tweet. 

At the same time, we launched Promoted Trends, where companies can place a trend (clearly marked Promoted) within Twitter's Trending Topics. These are especially effective for upcoming launches, like a movie or album release.

Lastly, we started a Twitter account called @earlybird where we partner with other companies to provide users with a special, short-term deal. For example, we partnered with Virgin America for a special day of fares on that were only accessible through the link in the @earlybird tweet.


What's next for Twitter?

We continue to focus on building a product that provides value for users. 

We're building Twitter, Inc into a successful, revenue-generating company that attracts world-class talent with an inspiring culture and attitude towards doing business.