September 2, 2011 7:16 pm

The networking hurricane

In New York, there was no escape from the tempest of information and debate
An illustration of a depicting people flocking like birds

When Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, relates the story behind his iconic venture, he likes to use a picture of a flock of birds. The reason? As Stone tells the story, he first appreciated the power of social media a few years ago, when he watched a crowd suddenly arrive at a bar after exchanging messages on a phone. That event, Stone says, helped him to understand how social media enabled people to suddenly congregate with unforeseen speed and force. To put it another way, what 21st-century tools do is enable people to “flock” together – around ideas, emotions, places or events. Hence that picture of birds.

It is a thought-provoking image, and it feels particularly pertinent to New York right now. Last weekend I hunkered down, along with millions of other New York residents, as the tropical storm-cum-hurricane known as Irene ripped along America’s East Coast. In some senses the experience turned out to be far less dramatic than many had initially feared: though the East Coast was battered with powerful winds and lashing rain, and there was terrible flooding inland, New York itself suffered far less damage than predicted. Before the storm hit I moved out of my apartment, which is next to the river, to stay with friends elsewhere. But my girls and I slept soundly during the night (much to the fury of my daughters, who were hoping that the winds would wake us so they could hold a midnight feast).

While Hurricane Irene might have spared New York in physical terms, the experience was nonetheless striking, for reasons that Stone observes. In earlier periods of my life, I have experienced moments of adrenaline-fuelled anxiety, holed up in a hotel in the middle of a civil war, or marooned in a remote outpost by snowstorms. Those occasions were marked by long spells of boredom, punctuated by flashes of anxiety, since I was dependent on a crackling radio or creaking telephone for news.

However, living in a hurricane in the age of social media takes adrenaline to a new level. Wherever you sheltered in the city last week, there was almost no escape from the tempest of information, debate and analysis flying around. Television and radio offered non-stop coverage, which became distinctly hysterical. The internet provided multiple tools to track the storm in real time. And as it approached, a gale of social media messages swirled, as New Yorkers “flocked” together, trying to make sense of events. (Apparently, there were 36 times the number of tweets per second than there were during the civil war in Libya.)

Is this a good thing? From a practical viewpoint, it might appear so. Some of the messages posted on the “Irene” Twitter page were distracting or trite (“Hello Apocalypse Irene”; “Loving the new hairstyle – I guess the wet look is in”, and so on). Many others were informative: citizens tracked the path of the rain, and government agencies sent out a blitz of practical advice and updates. The office of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, was particularly efficient and co-ordinated; one could track almost all the events from that Twitter feed alone. “City bridges may be closed”; “There are 78 hurricane centres and 8 special medical centres across the City”; “We are in the midst of the most dangerous period of the storm … continue to remain indoors.” Or – eventually – “By 3pm we will officially lift the evacuation order.”

. . .

Yet there was also a dark side to this “flocking”. A week after the event, some political rivals have accused Mayor Bloomberg of over-reaction. The television coverage has been criticised. What also needs to be debated, however, is whether this cyber “flocking” heightened public emotion too. After all, the more that people share their thoughts and fears in cyberspace, the more they create echo chambers. To use another metaphor, Hurricane Irene was producing an emotional “wind tunnel” last weekend, as news and moods were channelled into a small space and funnelled back and forth between media outlets, over and over again.

This was addictive, but the flurry of debate was disturbing, too. And while Bloomberg’s office was clearly determined to corral this information tempest – and did so, in my view, with some success – it faced a tough challenge. After all, fear is contagious and social media is anarchic, even – or especially – in 140 characters.

There is no easy solution to this. Just before the storm began to affect New York, the mayor’s office warned in a tweet that the electricity could fail (“If low-lying areas begin to flood, there is a chance that Con Ed will have to shut down the grid in parts of the City”). If that had happened, it would have been fascinating to see how New York would have behaved if all those modern forms of communication had shut down. Would people have panicked? Would they have been happy to rely on old-fashioned, battery-powered radios for news instead? Might that have been a relief? No one knows. One thing that is clear is that the impact of these emotional “wind tunnels” requires more debate. They will stay with us long after the hurricane season is past, and in far more places than New York.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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