Once a product of handshakes and conversational interaction, the concept of social networking during recent years has taken on a decidedly electronic feel, with e-mail, instant messaging and postings on blogs and sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter instantly expanding one's potential circle of friends — and enemies — to a global scale.

Through these portals, even the most geographically isolated can bond with — or be victimized by — someone oceans away. Traditional lines of privacy are being redefined voluntarily, as participants post text, pictures and video about virtually any topic, from personal accomplishments to sensitive information to purely random statements about favorite foods or hated commercials.

To many in public safety, the social-networking phenomenon is a nuisance, with the Web sites being leveraged in a number of crimes, particularly sex-related offenses that often involve underage victims. In addition, a recent British study revealed that 10% of people surveyed admitted to updating their Twitter or Facebook sites while driving, creating a significant potential safety risk.

With Twitter, participants can send 140-character text messages known as "tweets" and photos detailing their moods and activities at the moment, allowing those who follow the Twitter page to get a snapshot of the tweeter's day.

While some may view such social-networking updates as entertainment or simply inane, Michael Byrne — senior vice president of consultancy ICF International, who has an extensive background in emergency preparedness and homeland security — said he believes social networking can be invaluable to first-responder agencies by letting them quickly get messages to the public they strive to protect and by helping them increase their own knowledge base of situations around them.

"I believe this is the most significant transformational use of technology since the telegraph was introduced," Byrne said.

Heightened awareness

It was the widespread adoption of the telegraph that forever changed the timelines associated with disseminating information, Byrne said.

"If you were the king of a country and you sent your army off to fight a battle before telegraph, you didn't find out you weren't king anymore until three or four weeks — maybe even months — after the battle," he said. "With the invention of the telegraph and wide distribution of it, you found out that day. I've got to believe that had an impact."

Modern-day communications offer a variety of methods for sharing information almost instantaneously, from commercial TV/radio broadcasts to electronic signage on roadways that forewarn drivers of upcoming traffic conditions to reverse-911 systems that call residents with instructions to follow in potentially dangerous situations. Increasingly, public-safety agencies are using Twitter as an additional avenue to share this information, because it offers several advantages — most notably the ability to reach citizenry on their cell phones, which is especially important in today's mobile environment.

"We're happy with the platform and the purposes it serves in getting our message out quickly to the public," said Dave Pubins, an officer and spokesman for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department. "That way, the public can utilize different ways to receive the message, whether it's by computer, cell phone, pager or what have you. We're always looking for tools to help us get the message out."

Indeed, many of the first-responder agencies using Twitter simply use the site as a clearinghouse for department press releases, reducing the need for resources to answer questions from media or interested citizens that take time from their primary responsibilities while being fair and transparent in their operations, said Donald Denning, the city of Boston's public-safety CIO.

"I think it's a great way for departments big and small to be able to get out there," Denning said. "I think the more information we get out to our constituents, the better each department looks."

Notification capabilities

Social-networking sites can be used for much more than detailing the existence of criminal incidents.

For the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and the Boston Marathon, Twitter was used to share information about closed streets, tow zones and the need to clear areas to allow emergency vehicles through, Denning said. Mobile-device users were able to view these messages at the site. They also were distributed virally to the Twitter network — making it more valuable than many other methods of communication, he said.

Byrne said he believes such an approach would be particularly valuable during large-scale events such as presidential inaugurations. While areas such as the National Capital Region have technology that allows authorities to push information to citizens, they require citizens to subscribe to the service, which greatly limits the adoption rate. Byrne said he was told that the subscriptions to the National Capital Region service peaked at 70,000 during the period around President Barack Obama's inauguration.

"That's not a trivial number, but when you have 5 million people in the area, 70,000 doesn't seem like a lot," Byrne said. "If we also looked at who was on MySpace, Twitter and those kind of immediate texting access [alternatives], … I've got to believe the number is much, much higher than 70,000, and it may be well over 1 million people."

Using social-networking sites also is a way to solicit information about crimes in a timely manner. Denning said Boston police plans to use Twitter to expand the scope of information during future Amber Alerts. Scottsdale police in May used the technique to distribute a picture of a bank robber in the act.

"He actually was caught in the act of another bank robbery a couple of weeks after that," Pubins said. "Whether the FBI received any tips based on the photograph, I don't know."

Nevertheless, Byrne said this use of electronic social networking is potentially very valuable.

"It's an electronic 'Wanted' poster," Byrne said. "Think about it: The whole reason you have a 'Wanted' poster is that the law-enforcement community is engaging the general population to help them find bad guys. You can now put that on steroids using these kinds of tools."

Byrne said he believe investigators also could uncover valuable nuggets of information on crimes through systematic observation of social-networking sites. In fact, some cases could be solved also immediately.

"What history has shown is that sometimes criminals aren't always the smartest guys," he said. "They're using their Facebook pages and MySpace pages to post pictures of themselves with stuff they stole."

A matter of trust

More often, Byrne said he believes social-networking sites can best be leveraged as a tool to gain situational awareness during incidents.

"Anytime there's a breaking event, there's a whole stream of messages, and you'll get a whole stream of consciousness of the microblogging community, which is rapidly becoming a pretty good random sample of the people who are involved in this," he said. "You end up getting a pretty good picture of what's going on."

Of course, the information contained in social-networking sites is just input from the general public, not official data — the biggest criticism that Byrne has heard from the "tried and true" public-safety officials who have chosen not to include social-networking techniques in their organizations' strategies. These officials have compared social networking sites to the "Tower of Babel; it's noise," he said.

That argument largely is accurate for any one piece of information, but using GPS location information in conjunction with the postings can add structure to the chaos, Byrne said.

"We know where these messages are coming from, because most of these devices — not all of them, but most — are in a fixed location," he said. "If we're starting to see similar messages all from one concentrated geographic location, that structured part of the data helps validate the unstructured data."

Byrne said information about an incident found on a social-networking site should be treated like other tips, in that they must be researched and verified before using them as a basis for action. However, one benefit of social-networking information is that even bad information often gets corrected.

"It does self-correct, so — if somebody puts information up there that's wrong — there are so many people looking at it that it gets corrected," Byrne said. "It's what I call the Wiki phenomena. Why are Wikipedia entries becoming more and more accurate? It's because people who genuinely care about the subject have eyes on it."

Work in progress

Another issue with Twitter is that server-related failures and slowdowns are not uncommon. With this in mind, Denning emphasizes that Boston police do not depend on the service for anything that is mission-critical.

Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said this approach is wise.

"My attitude toward all of these is that you use every tool you have. If you're looking for emergency notification, it's not just reverse 911 — you use SMS, you use broadcast, sirens — and Twitter is just one more. I don't trust either SMS or Twitter, because there is no acknowledgement that those messages ever got through.

"Twitter as another tool is fine, but when you start relying on something like Twitter as your main focus, you're making a mistake."

Meanwhile, Byrne said he would like to see some comprehensive research done on behalf of public safety regarding the use of social-networking technologies. Although the number of first-responder agencies using Twitter and other social-networking sites has mushroomed during the past year, information-technology departments in some organizations like FEMA actually have blocked access to social-networking sites, he said.

The reasons they're blocking it are myriad. Part of it is just a physical limitation on bandwidth," Byrne said. "These organizations set up their IT infrastructure without envisioning the type of bandwidth these things would require — and rightly so, because nobody could have predicted even six months ago the rapid rate of adoption that we're seeing."

Byrne said he believes "prudent evaluation" of social-networking technology is needed from a public-safety perspective before there is widespread adoption within the first-response community

"Right now, I'm giving you some anecdotal examples that this is interesting, but I think it's too early to draw conclusions about what the real power of this is going to be," he said. "There are a growing number of evangelists around the topic, but the tried-and-true institutional organizations that are in the forefront of public safety in the United States are a little hesitant. Once they jump in, I think there will be an incredibly rapid adoption rate."