It has fuelled political revolutions and offered the likes of Stephen Fry, Wayne Rooney and Lady Gaga a direct line to their fans.
Twitter might not, however, be the first thing on the mind of a man hijacked and locked in the boot of his car. Yet it was a chorus of tweets that quite possibly saved his life.
The victim was driving through Johannesburg, South Africa, at around 9pm last Saturday when two armed men stopped and seized his Golf 3, South Africa’s Star newspaper reported.
The carjackers forced the man into the boot and drove away with him trapped inside – an act that has too often ended horrifically in a country blighted by violent crime.
However, the victim used his mobile phone to send a desperate text message to his girlfriend. She turned to Twitter for help, posting at 9.11pm: “Be on the look for DSS041GP. my boyfriend has just been hijacked and is in the boot please RT [retweet].”
Seven people retweeted the plea, according to the Star. Then a friend, named Tanisha Reddy, harnessed the wisdom of crowds by sending it to the Twitter user PigSpotter, who has become a mini-celebrity in South Africa by posting warnings about speed traps.
PigSpotter’s 110,000 followers, including private security companies, were now on the case. One called Afritrack tweeted: “Does that vehicle have a tracking device? We would like to assist. We have units in surrounding areas.”
Reddy responded: “No it doesn’t. How else can we track him?”
Riga Rescue, a community emergency service and rescue team, offered to help trace him using a mobile phone number.
At 10.05pm, the Star said, the companies were working their contacts to lock on to the hijacked man’s phone signal. “We have co-ords,” announced a 10.20pm tweet from K9 Law Enforcement.
The Star continued: “The Golf was headed south along the N1, speeding towards Kroonstad in the Free State. Then, silence in the Twittersphere.
“Any updates?” asked a desperate Reddy.
“‘We trying to intercept from both ways!’ responded Riga Rescue. “Hang on we doing all we can!”
It was not until 11.08pm – more than two hours after the first tweet – that word came through.
Reddy tweeted: “Just received a call, the police have found him in Ventersburg! He is OK just shaken up thank you to everyone for all the help!!”
She said the hijackers had driven straight into a roadblock. They abandoned the car and fled on foot, and remain at large. The victim, shaken but unharmed and reunited with his car, has declined to be named or interviewed.
But Reddy has subsequently posted: “We are so grateful for all the RTs and help we received from all of you! You have helped us avoid a situation that could have turned bad thank you!
“There are a lot of brave people out there every day risking their lives for us in our time of need, tonight I have seen it thank you to all who helped.”
South Africa is the tweeting capital of Africa. A recent study found that the country generated more than 5m tweets in the last three months of 2011.
Toby Shapshak, editor of Stuff magazine in South Africa and author of a forthcoming book on innovation in Africa, said: “Twitter has come to the rescue of people arrested under dubious conditions. The first case was an American student in Egypt, who tweeted just: ‘Arrested’.
“There are downsides, unfortunately: a young woman created a suicide hoax last year on Twitter, causing much of South Africa’s twitterati to get involved, only to discover she was safely in her bedroom at her parents’ house.”
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