This is really interesting initial research (also see here) looking into the earthquake in New Zealand and how users of social media, in this example Twitter, responded to the crisis. What seems to happen is users turn to social media as a means of self-organisation (information sharing) and self-informing (forwarding news deemed salient):
So, this would seem to support the ‘ambient journalism’ idea: in the immediate aftermath, Twitter users’ focus turns to making sense of what’s happening, by sharing information and amplifiying (through retweets) the material coming from key news organisations; later, attention turns from news to more practical advice on how to respond to and recover from the disaster.
As you can see, the term used to cover this duel-role of self-organisation and self-informing is ‘ambient journalism’. This seems to be a mix of activity that includes retweeting news (esp. news from local and/or major news organisations) as well as a degree of discussion. There also seems be be a rapid identification and then amplification of those social media users who are in an important positions, in the middle of events. The analysis of twitter users showed:
Before 25 Feb [the date of the quake], it’s news organisations like @nzherald and @NZStuff who get the most @replies (including, I’m willing to bet, a vast amount of retweets as users share the breaking news being posted by these organisations); additionally, interested individuals who are active in passing on information about what’s happening – such as @anthonybaxter or @georgedarroch – also receive substantial numbers of @replies or retweets. There are also some immediate advisories (especially from @TelecomNZ and @vodafoneNZ) getting a substantial number of retweets, of course – and a few more general messages of support (especially that from @stephenfry) are also highly visible.