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Hurricane Sandy: Will Social Media Inform Or Distract?

6 Ways iPhone 5, iOS 6 Amp Up Social Opportunities
6 Ways iPhone 5, iOS 6 Amp Up Social Opportunities

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Sandy, the monster storm, generated a monster amount of predictions, storm trackings, warnings and social commentary. The storm rightfully usurped the political races, sports and any other news events that were quickly diminished in the storm's slow march to the East Coast.

With #Frankenstorm (and related #Sandy) clearly topping Twitter trending tags and Hurricane Sandy leading the Google hot search term list, the amount of media focus on the hurricane was as enormous as the storm itself. And while I heartily agree with the idea of warning the populace of impending danger, I sometimes wondered during the storm if the overwhelming amount of social interaction prevents networkers from taking responsible and intelligent actions to avoid Frankenstorm's wrath. It is sort of like texting while driving: you are spending so much time immersed in the minutia of storm coverage and interaction, you miss avoiding the tree in front of you. The business equivalent would be like the downside of Big Data: too much information overwhelming the ability to make a decision.

Matthew Ingram at Gigaom has questioned if social media creates an environment of distraction and he mentions both
Joe Kraus of Google Ventures arguing for slow tech to ward off a culture of distraction and Nicholas Carr arguing in his book The Shallows that all the social interaction only makes us dumber.

But what about when an impending Frankenstorm is barreling down on us and we continue to Tweet, Facebook and Instagram when we should be packing up the car and heading for the mountains? Clearly there is no current data from the current hurricane. However, I couldn't help but notice in the television coverage the number of people with smartphones taking photos of the approaching storm. I guess there has always been an ample supply of folks willing to take photographs of an onrushing storm rather than taking a more reasonable path (all those tornado watchers come immediately to mind). But the ability to instantly post their storm experience would seem to me to encourage what you might call social storming.

The upside to storm-oriented Twitter activity is the ability to communicate and get help when other media channels are lost. CNN covered Twitter accounts used for storm and relief updates and noted, "News apps and mobile sites are helpful, but for real-time streaming updates, it's hard to beat Twitter. With that in mind, here's a roundup of Twitter accounts offering real-time information about evacuations, mass transit, flooding, power outages and emergency-relief efforts."

The ability to track and discuss this storm's potential and path is in dramatic difference to what happened in New York and New England in 1938. I wasn't around for the Great New England Hurricane, which saw a record wind gust of 186 mph at a weather observatory outside of Boston, 25 foot tides, and 564 deaths. The massive, fast-moving hurricane hit the New York and New England regions with absolutely no warnings for residents. How could this be? It was in the era before radar, but not before radio. The hurricane had missed Florida and the forecasters were sure it would miss the U.S. If you have an hour, watch the public television documentary on the 1938 hurricane. If with Hurricane Sandy we suffer from too much information, then 1938 was all about too little information and too much reliance on past history rather than present conditions.

It seems to me that the storm of social media interaction that takes place all the time -- but is hugely accelerated around big events like a hurricane -- can create a social network version of analysis paralysis. In a manner similar to all the money being spent by companies to create social analysis systems that will allow a company to measure social sentiment but also be able to act on that sentiment, a similar capability is needed in the personal social media world. You want your networks to alert you that the best thing to do is to head for higher ground rather than create a fog of conversation.

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)