How Irene was a weak hurricane but a social media superstorm

Posted by Mark Raby

Many people called Hurricane Irene a disappointment, many called it historic, and many more called it a dodged bullet, but the indisputable fact is that many people talked about it.

Despite the fact that Irene came ashore as a minimal category 1 hurricane, it was still the first real noteworthy tropical cyclone to hit the US in a while - the first real hurricane worth Tweeting about since the social networking explosion has taken place.

And indeed, over the weekend the social media sites were inundated with talk of Irene. The female-named hurricane even spurred some users to create new Twitter accounts to give Irene her own voice.

The National Hurricane Center used Twitter to provide us with updates, as did all manner of TV news stations, websites, and newspapers. People used it to share photos, stories, and videos of the storm's impact to them.

Although Irene was not as strong as anyone was predicting last week, the death toll has risen to more than 20 and the amount of insured damages could reach historic proportions.

In New York City, though, residents remained largely unharmed, and that's because of the unprecedented mandatory evacuation of low-lying areas and shutdown of mass transit. These were first-of-their-kind moves boldly initiated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

However, one could very well argue that it is because of social media and citizen journalism that Bloomberg put these restrictions in place. In the last week of 2010, New York suffered a catastrophic blizzard that crippled the city.

That blizzard spurred a flurry of viral videos and Twitter comments focusing on incompetent snow plow drivers, union laborers literally sleeping on the job, and thousands of people abandoning stranded buses or broken-down subways.

Were it not for those first-hand accounts, and actual photos and videos of this debacle, Bloomberg would not have faced such criticism and perhaps would not have been so quick to act in the wake of this more recent natural disaster.

Sure, we've had big storms in this climate of social media omnipresence, but Irene posed a threat to nearly 10% of the entire US population. Regardless of how much damage it caused, it was guaranteed to be a bigger story than, say, Hurricane Ike back in 2009, one of the last hurricanes to actually make landfall in the US.

More than a million Twitter messages were posted about Irene. Hurricane Ike, by contrast, will be remembered in only about 10,000 Tweets.