February 11, 2013

Alone, together: Snowed in, in the age of hashtags

The weekend whiteout was a lifetime away from the blizzard of 1978, a world not just without social media but one devoid of endless Weather Channel warnings and the lifeline of mobile phones.

Barbara Ortutay/AP Technology Writer

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A woman checks her mobile phone outside Lincoln Center, home of New York's Fashion Week shows, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. In New York City, the snow total in Central Park was 8.1 inches by 3 a.m. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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On Instagram, people used the hashtag "Nemo" (the Weather Channel's unofficial name for the storm) 583,641 times in describing their photos as of Sunday afternoon according to Venueseen, a company that helps businesses track marketing campaigns on Instagram. The Facebook-owned photo-sharing site is where Witz posted a photo that his sister sent him from Hamden, Conn., one of the hardest-hit areas with 40 inches of snow.

"I like Instagram because it gives you a more personal, immediate sense of peoples' experiences in real time," he says. "I'm one of the weird few people who actually enjoy seeing what people in the world are eating and drinking."

It's easy to be nostalgic about how much things have changed since the blizzard of '78 when it comes to the speed of information and how it's consumed. But the changes continue.

"What really struck me this time around, and with (Superstorm) Sandy too, is not so much that people were sharing information, but that they were sharing photos and video," says Steve Jones, a professor who studies online culture and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "You get a different perspective than you could from just words."

Indeed, says Ranvir Gujral, the co-founder of Chute, a San Francisco startup that helps companies put user-generated content on their websites and mobile apps, "we are in the midst of a visual revolution."

The San Francisco company worked with NBC to launch Stormgrams, a site where people can share Instagram photos of the storm using a common hashtag. The photos are organized by location, laid out on a "heat map" that paints the most actively sharing states red.

Countless mobile apps encourage photo-taking, Gujral says, adding that a big reason there is so much thirst online for the endless stream of photos is because there has never been a bigger supply of it.

So what's lost in this endless stream of snow-updates, Instagram photos and Facebook news Serendipity, Jones says. Running into people and sharing a moment - offline - while events are unfolding.

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