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Twitter: Not exactly useful for #snowmageddon

Twitter has been hailed as a vital information-sharing tool in times of crisis, from the Iranian protests last year to the recent Haitian earthquake. Journalists, too, love Twitter because, aside from pushing their stories out into the ether, it allows them to find relevant sources and locations to do reporting. But an early look at Twitter on the verge of a historic and likely incapacitating snowfall shows that, for some reason, Twitter users are not exactly posting valuable information so far.

Consider a practical question such as where to buy something as basic as shovels. Try typing in relevant and seemingly obvious or intuitive keywords, with appropriate hash marks -- "DC shovels"; "Washington shovels"; "#snowmageddon shovels"; and so on -- and the result is very little up-to-the-minute information on where to find open stores that still have shovels or salt.

At first, around 11:45 a.m., I got lucky when I started with "DC shovels" and came up with a tweet showing that Frager's hardware store in Capitol Hill had new shovels: "ranagan This is how ridiculous DC is: hardware stores announce a new box of shovels has arrived! RT: More shovels! Come now! (via @Fragers) #snOMG."

But that was two hours ago.

The rest of my "DC shovels" search came up with little of value, especially since the tweets were posted two hours ago as well.

There was: "MrRodsNei8borhd DC is crazy right now! With the Snow bilizard on the way. How the heck Home Depot sellout in 200 shovels by 10 this morning!"

And: "Ed @newmediajim I heard on radio "...popular DC hardware store is out of shovels, and frantically calling their supplier..." :D."

Onward, I traveled deep into the Twitterverse. I tried typing in "Capitol Hill shovels," "Alexandria shovels," "Petworth shovels," "Loudoun shovels" and "Columbia Heights shovels" and came up empty.

"Fairfax shovels" worked -- but wasn't specific enough: "paulburton0 The guy at Home Depot in Fairfax just said they had 550 snow shovels when they opened this morning and now they're all sold out. #fb."

"Snowmageddon shovels" was slightly useful with a posting an hour ago: "tnow They have snow shovels @ Home Depot in Springfield. Going fast! #snowpocalypse #snowmageddon."

Finally, I thought I found a decent keyword phrase "#snowpocalypse shovels," which led me to: "pyyhkala RT @newmediajim: @HomeDepot shoppers waiting for delivery truck carrying snow shovels and blowers #snowpocalypse http://twitpic.com/11i3oy."

It came with a photo and it was posted just nine minutes ago. I was psyched. Only problem: I clicked on the user's name and discovered she lived in Boston. So, I tacked on "DC" and ""#snowpocalypse shovels" and got nothing.

Finally, I went back to my original search terms: "DC shovels" to see if anything popped up. I got one decent tip that was useful -- posted just nine minutes ago! -- but still depressing: "brittne_ RT @brittne_: #walmart #kmart #lowes #homedepot #target customer service FAIL for not having any shovels in any store in the NOVA/DC area!"

That sort of rules out most of one's options in the Washington area, yes?

By Ian Shapira  | February 5, 2010; 1:24 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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