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Hostage situation unfolds real-time on Twitter

By Elizabeth Chuck, msnbc.com

We’re used to finding out about earthquakes through tweets in some variation of “OMG! Just felt an earthquake!” Today, Twitter also proved its ability to effectively deliver updates during an ongoing hostage situation in Silver Springs. Md.

As a gunman who reportedly had explosives strapped to himself held people hostage in the Discovery TV building, the six degrees of separation from the 1,900 employees who work there became apparent as panicked people tweeted their concern for friends, cousins, aunts, and acquaintances employed by Discovery. Most followed up with tweets of relief when they heard their loved ones were OK- and tweets from employees themselves who got out safely. “Everyone I’m ok – please pray for my co worker,” tweeted @BmoreFab.

#Discovery” quickly became a trending hashtag on Twitter, and news junkies and e-detectives wasted no time digging up information on the suspect, James Jay Lee, once media outlets released his name. @yurivictor tweeted a link to a cached webpage Lee apparently created two years ago, which referenced another Discovery protest he organized in February 2008; his MySpace page was passed around, along with YouTube videos allegedly showing footage of him and blog posts he wrote.

'If Twitter were around during Katrina'
People near the Discovery building became reporters in 140-character-update form. From her office on the 10th floor in Silver Spring, @DCDebbie tweeted around 2 p.m. ET: “Just now hearing of hostage situation at Discovery channel headquarters, I'm 2 blocks away... Will investigate,” she tweeted around 2 p.m. ET.

“Downtown silver spring is evacuated, Discovery employees huddled on nearby corner crying,” she tweeted a few minutes later to an audience that would grow by the thousands throughout her afternoon of on-the-scene live-tweeting.

“Hundreds of people are replying back, saying they’re hearing more from what I’m tweeting than from other news sources,” Debbie, who asked that her last name not be printed while the situation was ongoing, told msnbc.com. “I’m warning my friends [in the area] who are warning their friends.”

She was “very, very concerned” by the situation, but remained devoted to delivering news as it happened. “People are hearing it from me first,” she told msnbc.com. “You have to wonder what would have happened if Twitter were around during Katrina.”