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My favorite thing on Twitter is a stream of fire and crime

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City of Marietta, GA / Flickr

I was at a birthday party when I heard about the fire. I wanted to leave but my girlfriend was still dancing, so I went to wait outside in a cul-de-sac courtyard on the back side of the building. The courtyard was full of people smoking or just talking, sound bouncing off the concrete walls. It was almost 1AM. I didn't want to talk to anyone so I found a place to stand on the far side and started looking at my phone as a kind of substitute for being alone.

I was at a birthday party when I heard about the fire

There was a 15-story building on fire by the World Trade Center. Someone had picked it up off the scanner and posted it to @NYCityAlerts, which is where I saw it. The tweet said "dwh," code for "doubtful will hold," a sign that the current force couldn’t keep the fire contained. The fire department called in another battalion. A few minutes later, another call came through with "pwh" — "probable will hold" — by which time I was ready to head back inside. I remember wondering if the flames had been big enough to see from the street.

The fire wasn't big enough make the papers aside from a single line in the tabloid fire-and-crime roundups. One fire doesn't mean much in a city as big as New York, but there are always a few people who are interested. In the case of @NYCityAlerts, it’s two orthodox Jews who’ve ended up chasing fires and crimes as a hobby. (They’re not accredited as a news agency, but the "About Us" section of their site says "we are here to do the job of delivering news to the public.") With so much action coming over the wire, it’s easy to see how you could develop the habit.

"We are here to do the job of delivering news to the public."

The feed draws from police frequencies too: a man stabbed in the back in Queens, another man shot in the leg inside a hospital in Bushwick. It's been a light summer, but there's still a new story every few hours — more often at night, of course, and more often on the weekend. You would lose your mind keeping up with all of them, so I generally just see the bare summary and move on. If it's an assault, sometimes I'll look up the address to see if it happened near where I live or where I might find myself on a Saturday night.

It's important to remember that this isn't a map of all the crime in the city, just the stuff that’s messy and immediate enough to get called in over the scanner. That means robberies, assaults, and the occasional escaped suspect. Beat cops, not detectives. Anything more investigative won't go out over an open channel, so you miss the big, intricate stuff in favor of a trench-level view. What's left is less of a cop show than a live feed of minor disasters, a shootout in Greenwich Village or a man pinned beneath a train. Disaster Twitter is usually terrible — think of your feed during Sandy, all bad facts and breathless self-importance — but this is different. It goes on and on, an endless string of local catastrophes that become inseparable from the background clatter of everyday life.

I realized this week that these experiences of minor disaster are my favorite thing that happens on Twitter, perhaps on the internet entirely. It's ghoulish, but I want to feel these things as they happen. It's exciting to be aware of them. It's the same urge that powers most of the news. Something's happening somewhere in the city and you're the only one at the party who knows about it. There's no urgency really, nothing you can do except take in the feeling. You say to the person next to you, "There's a building on fire downtown," and he says "huh" and you sit for a moment and then go back to whatever you were doing before.

When you spend your day digging for these things and repackaging them, as I typically do, you get used to fussing around with delivery. It feels important, but it might do more harm than good. It’s better to have it direct like this, popping up without warning — as if you were seeing it spill out in front of you in a subway car or as if, coming home after a party, you walked past a building on fire.