A flurry of Twitter messages that began early Tuesday morning from the Seattle Police Department puzzled many Twitter users. Was there a sudden crime wave in Seattle? Was the city under attack? Had a computer gone haywire?
No. The Police Department in this technology-conscious city had started a 12-hour experiment of posting almost all its emergency calls on Twitter. It wanted citizens to see what a day in the life of the department was really like.
The experiment translated into an average of 40 Twitter messages an hour, for a total of 478 by the end of the day. The 140-characters-or-fewer fragments ranged from reports of car accidents and a suicide threat to hang-up calls and “suspicious person possible armed with sword.” (It omitted reports of domestic violence and child abuse, deeming them too personal, though suicide would seem to fall into that category.)
As readers began to understand what was going on, many became annoyed. They said the feeds were mundane and had clogged up their accounts, and they scolded the police for bad Twitter behavior. Within a few hours, hundreds of followers had become unfollowers.
“Ok,” wrote one irate reader. “I had to mute the @SeattlePD I don’t care about mental person panhandling too aggressive while jaywalking. Bad use of twitter!”
Linda Thomas, a local radio host and blogger, rapped the department for failing initially to explain what it was doing and for what she said was a waste of taxpayers’ time and money.
“The Seattle social media community is a family,” Ms. Thomas wrote. “Today, the SPD was a noisy uncle at the dinner table who was only talking about himself — in incoherent sentences at that — and refusing to acknowledge that there are others in the room.”
But others loved the feeds, praising the department for sharing so much and, as one put it, for “pushing the envelope.” Some were riveted by the unfolding mini-dramas, just as people first were enthralled decades ago when they began monitoring police scanners. (Such eavesdropping has not gone out of style; these days, there are even apps for that.)
Several Twitter users outside Seattle wrote that they wished their own police departments would post their calls. Those in Wichita, Kan., had their wishes granted when that Police Department announced Wednesday that, inspired by Seattle, it would try a similar program on Thursday, though for only one hour.
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the Seattle police, declared the experiment a hit. “It got people talking about crime in Seattle, which is at a record low,” he said. Sergeant Whitcomb said the Twitter messages raised awareness that crime-fighting was a group effort and that the department relied on calls from citizens.
It was so successful, he said, that the department might start posting its 911 calls full-time, but only for readers who sign up and if the posts could be automated. By automation, he meant that dispatchers would press a button that would categorize the calls (“weapons” rather than “possible sword”), which would, alas, cost the messages some of their quirky flavor.
The Police Department will, however, start another experiment next month, with officers in the field sending out Twitter messages of what they did on their calls only, of course, after they have resolved the incident.
Meanwhile, the Twitter world (with some typos in its orbit) is still debating the value of the Seattle posts. One user took a philosophical approach: “Anyone upset over the @SeattlePD tweets yesterday needs to calm down. Twitter is 99% inane chatter anyway (and 1% important Beiber news).”