The world became witness to the largest earthquake in Japan's recorded history Friday, as an 8.9-magnitude quake pushed a massive wall of water through its northeastern coast, flushing away entire tracts of farmland and whole cities as cars and boats appeared to tumble through the water like toys. Though there isn't yet an accurate account of the death toll, the Associated Press reported late Friday that more than 450 people were found dead, with 547 missing and 798 injured.
The tragedy was made more striking by how quickly and how vividly the news spread.
Unlike the earthquake in Haiti, a raft of firsthand videos showing falling debris and collapsing buildings sprang up on YouTube within hours of the event; Twitter lit up with multiple sources pointing to news reports and information; and Google, which has 35% of the search market in Japan, responded much like a traditional news organization, taking advantage of its software by publishing tools and information on its Google Crisis Response page (which it also did in the wake of Haiti). And while the Red Cross said it would no longer be able to accept inquiries to locate family or friends in Japan, Google set up its People Finder Page, where anyone can type in the name of the person they're looking for; interestingly, this database is also being populated by ordinary citizens, highlighting the power of socially-derived information exchange.
"You saw very quickly the actual footage of everything that was happening, it was mind-boggling," said Anthony De Rosa, a product manager and blogger for Reuters. Mr. De Rosa, who has become something of a news anchor within the universe of Twitter, said the coverage around the event populated social media more quickly than the traditional news outlets.
According to an analysis from Trendrr, which tracks terms on Twitter, the word "earthquake" reached 19,360 tweets per hour when the earthquake first struck, and peaked at 35,430 Twitter posts an hour as people started waking up in the U.S. By late March 11, a total of 246,075 Twitter posts using the term "earthquake" had been posted to the microblogging service.
"There are a lot of people putting out reports that are rumor or secondhand source," Mr. De Rosa said. "But the great thing about Twitter is that someone will see it and they can verify that or correct it if it's not true."
The social response was perhaps most animatedly seen in the U.S. at the South by Southwest festival, which kicked off on the day of the tragedy. Forty-five minutes after news of the earthquake hit American media outlets, the website SXSW4Japan.org appeared online. "I woke up and I saw the news and I knew we needed to do something about this," said Rob Wu, a co-founder of CauseVox, a web startup that helps nonprofits create online fundraising campaigns.
Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, said it's no surprise attendees are so quickly responding to the tragedy. "In the last months we've had several panels change their focus to talk about how social media has affected world events," he said.
On the ground
The tsunami struck just off the northeastern coast of Japan, and though the country's biggest cities of Tokyo and Osaka were not too severely affected, major industries were hit hard. According to BBC reports, major manufacturers have halted production, including Sony, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Fuji Heavy Industries -- which makes Subaru, and Sapporo -- among others. Among some American concerns in Japan, P&G temporarily suspended production at one plant Friday, but resumed production soon thereafter, according to a spokesperson.
Ad agencies as of Friday afternoon reported that employees were safe, and offices fared well despite the record-setting quake. Executives at the country's largest agency, Dentsu, told Ad Age employees were safe and that its headquarters, located in a 48-story skyscraper, were in working order.
'Al Jazeera winning'
News of the event hit American airwaves in the morning, just before most people were heading to work, and while multiple sources captured the tsunami on video, cable news outlets didn't offer a live-stream of its coverage online where people could take advantage of office connections to the internet. Al Jazeera English quickly pushed a live stream of Japan's devastation on its website, one of the first major news organizations to do so.
"They're able to do that because they're liberated by the absence of contractual legal obligations," said Doc Searls, an author working with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. "Unlike, say, the BBC, which will not communicate outside their own borders, and in the case of the traditional mainstream networks, who are contractually obligated to broadcast only through affiliates and satellite or cable, so that's why you have Al Jazeera winning."