Twitter joins the Olympics, as a Chinese journalist cries out for help

There seems to be some grassroots support for the idea of an emergency broadcast system on the micro-messaging service Twitter, at least from people who have emergencies to broadcast. The latest cry for help: A Chinese journalist nabbed by security forces during the Olympics and forced to go to a village far from the event.

You can see Zhou “Zuola” Shuguang’s Twitter stream here, but it won’t do you much good if you can’t read Chinese. A translation of his Tweets is on Global Voices Online. According to the article, Zuola — a childless 27 year old — was ordered to meet with police over accusations of having two children, one more than the local limit. On meeting the police, he was placed in a car, driven to a mining town, and placed under house arrest.

Two months ago a similar case in Egypt got the attention of Twitter users, when an American, James Buck, sent out a terse message reading, simply, “ARRESTED”. Buck proposed the emergency system, in order to help bring awareness to people in desperate straits. Twitter has also proved useful for sending out some alerts, like the one of a 5.4 magnitude earthquake in Southern California.

Just one problem: None of the above situations appeared to have been major emergencies. Buck was released; Zuola appears to have been sent home (with a warning to stay there). The earthquake was small. Twitter is a new service, and the noise ratio is still relatively low. As it grows, how many people will tap into it to Tweet about their predicament? Who will keep reading? And how will they know when to take action?

Still, it’s interesting that Zuola, a citizen reporter, knew all about Twitter and even had a Blackberry in order to send messages. Twitter is gaining users, but it’s hard to tell how many come from outside the United States. A Chinese man crying out for help in his own language indicates that sizable populations are growing elsewhere — whether they’re good in an emergency or not. Meanwhile, Twitter is also proving useful in less life-threatening situations, like the recent Gmail outage.