Just over a year ago, the Mars Phoenix Lander blanketed Earth's social networking system, Twitter, with one simple but historic sentence: "We have ice." The message was quaint, like a note passed from WALL-E to the world during sixth grade math.
Now the Bitterroot National Forest is hoping to follow the Lander's lead. Last Thursday morning there was a large snowdrift blocking Magruder Road approximately 1.3 miles beyond Observation Point. How did we know? A little blue bird told us.
The Bitterroot National Forest became the latest victim of the Twitter pandemic a few weeks ago, signaling that, indeed, every single entity in the world is tweeting these days. (Incidentally, you can follow the Indy at Missoula_Indy.) So far, the forest has gained 39 followers and tweeted about road closures and public events.
We have no problem embracing the latest Digital Age kitsch, but we do wonder what value it adds to the Bitterroot National Forest. Emergency Food and Drug Administration recalls make sense, but what can a 140-character message possibly add to the Forest Service's existing arsenal of websites, press releases and public meetings?
Nan Christianson, the Bitterroot's public affairs officer, says the agency hopes to reach a younger breed of wilderness users by taking information to their digital stomping ground. A valiant end-goal, true, but so far most tweets have had the feel of watching grass grow. How announcing a KPAX feature on bitterroot flowers in bloom will beckon young, connection-obsessed Twitterers away from their Facebook pages is beyond us.
Christianson says there's potential for Twitter on the wildfire front as well. The network can easily spread news from the Forest Service's existing wildfire information engine—InciWeb—as proven by regular tweets in California's San Bernardino Forest this summer. But there are nagging flaws in this logic, too. Beyond media members and the odd desk-jockey with a fetish for following fire activity, those who most need instant updates are likely those beyond Twitter's reach.
That said, there's a much simpler genesis for the "Why Twitter?" question. The Bitterroot's Twitter feed does little good without a reliable website to back it up. The forest's site currently suffers from a rash of broken links and outdated information. The problems will be addressed this fall, Christianson says. But, to mangle a metaphor, we can't help feeling they're putting the tweet before the Web page.