November 29, 2008 2:00 am

Twitter turns serious with messages of life and death

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The political and economic ramifications of the Mumbai terrorist attacks may not be clear for many months, but the violence has led to the coming of age of a website previously seen as a frivolous distraction.

Twitter , a text-based micro-blogging service better known for people alerting each other about what they are having for lunch in 140 characters or fewer, has become the central channel for eyewitness accounts and news updates on the events in India.

The service has been flooded with thousands of posts or "tweets", some from people trapped in the hotels where the attacks were taking place. There are also calls for blood donors to go to specific hospitals, unconfirmed death counts and search pleas for the missing.

Users have requested news when local coverage has been blacked out and posted breaking updates from Indian channels ahead of western networks. One man based in Australia used Twitter to request information on his missing family: "Hearing that more and more floors at Oberoi have been cleared but still no word on my cousin (Italian national woman with infant)." Six hours later, and after several desperate messages, he wrote: "Just saw them coming out of the hotel. Live pictures of them safe and well. Overwhelmed."

But as the attacks have gone on, the stream of messages has become more and more cluttered with conspiracy stories, arguments, spam messages and confusing posts, thrown in with tweets from media outlets and observers.

Twitter works by taking SMS or e-mail messages sent by users, and sending them to the author's followers by SMS, e-mail or Facebook, for example. Messages can be public or restricted, and some users have thousands of followers.

Up until the attacks in Mumbai, Twitter had been seen as a clever but lightweight service, with some comparing it to the television comedy sitcom Seinfeld , the "show about nothing."

But Twitter gained some level of seriousness during the recent US election, launching a special site that brought together posts from the candidates, lists of the most popular topics and charts tracking spikes in discussions about particular topics as they were raised in presidential debates.

Twitter has suffered from several service interruptions, and has yet to find a model for generating revenue, although co-founder Biz Stone told the F T last week: "Now that we have stabilised the technology, we are finally able to start focusing on creating a sustainable company."

Reports last week of an approach from Facebook were rumoured to have broken down over stock valuation. No comment was made.

The Mumbai attacks are reported on many places online, but Twitter has become the focus of attention. Mr Stone admitted this week that most people who visit the site are not sure what the service is for. They probably have a better idea now.

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