I was in a buddy's office when experimenting with a new Twitter client. In a small highrise apartment converted to office - 2 desks, an ADSL line, and a sofa, we overlooked the city centre park and were locked, if I recall correctly, in a conversation about the brands of cars preferred by customers of the restaurant next door. Twenty stories above Dalian's best restaurant, it was a common topic of conversation.
Twitter then was a great hive-mind, a place where genuinely interesting people spoke randomly of what encountered them in their daily routines. And in China it was pretty niche - even today the community of tech lovin' English language probably blogging nerds isn't that big. And in a 2nd tier city, well, there were 3 people here on Twitter at the time, which made it all the more appealing, it was a way of making the world smaller for us away and by doing so making this small town much closer in thought to larger cousins.
I noticed a Tweet from uber connector @christinelu. She said she had a friend that had a bunch of coal, and wanted to sell some of it in China. I shouted across the office to Leo "Know anyone that wants to buy some coal?" to which he replied "Too much fake stuff!" (fake coal, I was to learn, is a booming China industry). On hearing it was imported, and having me pull up some data from a Bloomberg terminal I should have been denied access from years ago, we concluded that the China coal market didn't look like a bad thing to dabble in. Looking across the bay from our office we could hardly make out the development zone on the far side, and Dalian is "a clean and beautiful city." In mid 2008 China was at a significant level of over-utilisation of capacity.
Dalian is really quite a nice place to live. It is not highly polluted. The rest of China isn't as windy as Dalian. China is famous as a country for getting much of its energy needs from carbon deposits in the ground, mainly coal. That coal industry is also famous for thousands of dead miners per year, and is well known for outputting coal of less than great quality. On logistics, the corruption and piracy of the mining and logistics of coal are largely not understood of by local journalists, let alone Western commentators.
This is a Twitter story, not an energy sustainability one. Long story short: the stuff that comes out the ground in China varies widely in quality, and getting it where you want it is an exercise equivalent to the slow filing of one's rear teeth. What I was Tweeted was nice 5600KCal low sulphur low ash non stupidly volatile coal, and that sounded like a great deal. Except it was $128/ton CIF to Shanghai. That for anyone not in the coal business during 2008 would be a little expensive, and I was quite a bit north of Shanghai; the Australian company I was dealing with seemed increasingly to be middle men that didn't understand the market that I was weeks deep in, entire weeks!
A Tweet is not going to secure a deal, but it is going to make the world smaller; it has never been easier to converse with experts thousands of miles apart - Twitter does make the world converse faster. I do notice an increasing amount of supposed 'experts' using Twitter (and I would emphasise to all that I am not a coal expert) - ignore them (hell, ignore me) - listen to a conversation that interests you and to which you can participate in. Google still provides a pretty good way to audit people, use it.
Twitter planted a seed and made the inconceivable come within reach. But in the end we left Twitter the field of contacts. A coal carrier carries around 20k to 50k MT of coal. In the peak of a boom ships can't be found for love nor money, and certainly not on Twitter. And nor can a reliable supplier, and nor can a reliable customer. Twitter is amazing, fantastic, and revolutionary, in so many ways, but in the end it is another cog in the wheel of communication, a really good cog, but it is not magic.
Whenever @christinelu is next in Dalian remind me the meals, hotel, and flight are on me. That Tweet really was that good.