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

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By Sunday afternoon, people on Instagram used the hashtag “Nemo” (the Weather Channel’s unofficial name for the storm) 583,641 times in describing their photos, 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.”

Chute worked with NBC to launch Stormgrams, a site where people can share Instagram photos of the storm using a common hashtag, a way of marking posts to make them more easily searchable by topic. 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. The next task, something he’s hoping to do with Chute, is creating “ways to make sense of this cacophony of imagery.”

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.

And challenges remain. Drivers got stuck in the snow in the storm of ‘78, they did in the storm of 2013 and will likely continue to for storms to come.

“One thing we haven’t overcome is what you do if you don’t have electricity or if you are stranded in a car without a cellphone signal,” Jones says.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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