Storms stay the same, but life changes quickly. Years ago, we’d hear about the impending doom from television networks. Instead of animated GIFs, we had televised meteorological projections looping for eternity on the news behind a spokesman for Mother Nature.
Today’s camera-facing weatherman is irrelevant. Few learned that Sandy was on its way by watching the news; instead, they saw the story through social media channels. Government organizations, scientists, journalists—these were the first to break Sandy’s agenda, and like the hurricane that their tweets, statuses, blog posts and articles described, the online news cycle picked it up and helped it grow into a massive swell of chaos.
As we braced for non-perishables, stocked up on emergency supplies and cocooned into apartments, one terrifying thought trumped them all: Should we lose electricity, connection to the outside world would go as well. These are observations of mankind (a.k.a us) in a rare, fish-out-of-water panic.
- We personified the disaster.As soon as the storm was recognized as Hurricane Sandy, we gave her a personality. We linked her with celebrities and more celebrities, made her a ghetto Twitter soapbox, made Twitter handles for other people to talk about Sandy (some of which were suspended, then overtaken by democracy) and turned ourselves into Sandy at Halloween parties. We turned nature into a “Sandy” and “Sandy” into a meme, using the Internet to joke and cope with the seriousness of the storm.
- We wanted to encounter shock. While some took the opportunity to catch up on Netflix or be productive for once, others religously checked Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and news sites, begging to find the next-worst photo of destruction. We got competitive, leaving our homes in hopes of encountering a shareable shot, a tree in need or a building without a wall. Some of us, including those far from the storm, did it virtually with webcams and the NYTimes roof feed. In our lust to live vicariously through Dennis Quaid and George Clooney, we also fell for fiction.
- We made stuff up. Twitter erupted with a number of eye-popping photos of Sandy approaching New York, many of which were retweeted by gullible followers eager to become a part of the chaos. Some were recycled from previous disasters and some, like these viral photos of the Statue of Liberty, were completely bogus. Pranksters like @ComfortablySmug spread lies through Twitter which reached CNN and convinced thousads that the NYSE had flooded, 10 ConEdison employees were trapped in an exploding plant and sharks were running amok in the Jersey Shore. Did we grow so bored with Sandy that we had to invent her wrath? Or is the Internet too gullible to contain obvious jokes without confusing them for reality? It’s so bad that an entire Tumblr exists just to comment on inaccuracies spread through Twitter, reminding us that we hold great responsibility in shaping the news.
- We wanted to share the experience. You know the drill: Social media makes us feel like we’re all together in some virtual community, yada yada… That’s true more than ever during disaster, because we’re stuck in our apartments and anxious to affirm that others also went to the supermarket to “prepare” for the storm, only to leave with an Instagram of empty shelves and a full case of wine. Thousands of people even checked into the storm on Foursquare, which suddenly became an archival tool to centralize and track photos and comments from the Hurricane.
- We are fascinated by the world outside. Photos of empty transit centers and tourist attractions spread quickly, highlighting great awe and wonder of nature’s power. Images that resonated the most were those of flooded landmarks and familiar streets, which were mysteriously powerful in the way the The Day After Tomorrow or I Am Legend visualized the everyday in its most extreme state.
- Twitter changed everything. News anchors held smartphones and tablets, basing stories on incoming messages and Tweets forwarded by producers. Most items broke on local and national news nearly 30 minutes after the same stories broke on Twitter, watering down (no pun intended) the phrase “breaking news” behind social media’s constant outpouring of content. Everyone from Mayor Bloomberg to the FDNY used Twitter to reach the public. Raging fires in Queens left behind a timeline of tweets that eerily perserve the event from the perspective of those affected the most.
- We realized, yet again, how attached we are to our devices. Aware of our dependency on electronics, New York took advantage of the Emergency Alert feature in iOS 6, made possible by the SAFE Port Act, to dispatch emergency notifications to iPhones. Photos of charging devices and empty battery shelves hit the networks before the storm, as people suddenly realized the ephemeral batteries in their electronics would not last through an outage. And with that outage came a realization that we are at the liberty of a cloud-based infrastructure in which being offline means being without content; first the storm limited access to information by taking down data centers and eventually power outages would bring media consumption to a sudden halt.
This was the hurricane of our generation. Let it be a reminder of our dependencies, our weaknesses and our advancements.