Held by Egyptian Authorities? Time to 'Tweet'

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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008

James Karl Buck says he has Twitter to thank for his freedom.

Buck, a journalism grad student, was arrested in Egypt last week, and his only communication to the outside world was through his cellphone, which he used to post a message on the micro-blogging site.

"Arrested," he typed into his phone, a message that broadcast via the Web to his friends in the United States and bloggers in Egypt.

Buck was detained after photographing a labor rally near a textile mill in Mahalla, a few hours from Cairo, the capital. The grounds for his arrest were not made clear to him, he said, though the men who detained him said he may have been inciting a riot.

Twitter, a social-networking site, lets its users constantly update, or "tweet," their friends, acquaintances and potentially anybody else with a Web connection, with short, often mundane messages like "heading to the library," "feeling sad" or "working late." Entries are limited to 140 characters, so the typical update is only a sentence or two, like a super-short blog. The free service launched in July 2006.

After Buck, who was in Egypt for a school research project, sent a tweet that he had been detained, his friends contacted the U.S. Embassy and his school, the University of California at Berkeley, which sent a lawyer to get him out of jail.

A spokeswoman for the State Department said yesterday that the agency helped secure Buck's release.

Buck's translator, Mohammed Maree, was also detained, the student said. Attiya A. Shakran, a spokesman for the Egyptian consulate in San Francisco, did not comment on Buck's arrest other than to say that Maree has been released.

Buck said he used his phone's texting feature rather than make a call because he figured it would draw less attention.

"I'm not big on 'What's the new techno-gadget of the week?' " he said. In this case, though, he said he "came to realize how important a tool like Twitter is."

The ability to communicate with the world via text messages helped assuage fears he would "fall into a black hole," he said. "Whether it saved my life, or whether it just kept me sane, I don't know."

Buck hadn't used Twitter for very long before his trip. Ironically, his research in Egypt focused on bloggers and journalists who use such tools to keep up with news.

Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, said he and some of the service's early users knew that it could be useful in emergencies because they used it to stay in touch after minor earthquakes in the Bay Area.

"Sometimes people take a look at it and aren't sure how it fits into their life," he said. "This kind of story paints a nice picture of a particular use case."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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