After the Iranian election last June, the perception of Twitter will never be the same. As the government cracked down on mounting protests and cut off traditional media outlets, including Websites, news from the front lines continued to filter out through Twitter - the social network that restricts users to 140 characters. Twitter's utility as a source of information during the protests was so valuable that the Obama administration quietly asked the company to delay a temporary shutdown to overhaul its service. PJ Crowley, an assistant secretary of state for public affairs, told The New York Times: "This was just a call to say: 'It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?'"

In other words, the Obama administration wanted communication continuity at a time of tumult and confusion. What's interesting about the timing of this development is that Twitter, as well as other social networking tools such as Facebook and blogs, are becoming more important customer communication tools at some banks. Most of the big banks, such as Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase, are experimenting with the technology, and some smaller banks are as well.

Calls to Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase inquiring about the inclusion of social networks in their larger business continuity planning were not returned by press time. A Bank of America spokesperson said the bank does not comment on business continuity planning except to say all aspects of the operation are evaluated.

But industry analysts say more institutions are beginning to consider if social networking should be included in business continuity and disaster recovery plans. Do these communication avenues rise to the mission critical level? If so, how can they be incorporated into a business continuity plan? How do you keep them up and running and make sure all the unstructured data floating through blogs and Twitter aren't lost?

"Social networking has become part of the delivery system as online banking sites have added blogs and social networking. Is there a plan to recover all the functionality?" asks Rodney Nelsestuen, senior research director at TowerGroup.

Marc DeCastro, research manager at Financial Insights, an IDC company, says the need to consider social networking functionality depends on the strategy behind the bank's offering. Is it a marketing channel to push out new rates and other offers, or is it a communication channel that customers are becoming more accustomed to using? If it's the former, it's not mission critical, but "if it's customer support and a contact tool it should be treated the same as a call center - a vehicle for customer contact that needs to be available to them."

Twitter's ease of use, the fact that it can be updated via a laptop or even a cell phone from anywhere by anyone with the right privileges, makes it a potentially powerful business continuity tool. "Somebody with a laptop and an Internet connection could be on Twitter duty," says DeCastro. "If you can simplify the tools needed for communication you make business continuity planning all the easier."

The challenges institutions face incorporating social networking into business continuity plans hinge largely on the kind of technology architecture in place, and the size of the IT budgets. If the social networking component is a bolt-on component of online banking (as is the case at most banks) then including the functionality in a business continuity plan will be more complicated and costly.

Yet banks want more of their operations covered by business continuity planning. According to a disaster recovery survey by Symantec Corp., 60 percent of applications are considered mission critical, up from 56 percent the year before, says Sean Derrington, director of strategic management and high availability at Symantec.

A bit of good news for IT execs is that spending on disaster recovery is relatively healthy compared to other areas of technology that are facing steep budget cuts. According to the Symantec survey, 52 percent said that budgets will stay the same in 2010, while 42 percent expect budgets to increase.

Liz Bissell, vp of marketing at Mountain One Financial Partners, says the institution has been on Twitter since early June. She is cautious about how she would use Twitter in the event of an emergency. Likely, she says, she would use Twitter to direct customers to other outlets of information, such as linking to a press release. During an emergency, the brevity required by Twitter's 140-character could limit its usefulness, she says, and might sow confusion. "Everything happens quickly on Twitter; it's fast and furious, so you've got to be so careful."

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