Second, and this is just my experience, when it counted, social media, which for me is mostly Twitter, played a supplementary role, at best. The #sandy hashtag provided a rich stream of information, heavily reliant, interestingly, on government sources, but not a coherent picture. My normal Twitter feed, likewise, provided a rather jittery mixed bag: amazing photos, sporadic reports from various neighborhoods, a lot of good-spirited observations, and as well as a bit of confusion, which lent itself to some humor opportunities. Even CNBC anchors had trouble verifying photos of, get this, sharks supposedly swimming around Jersey. I found Twitter interesting enough, but not particularly useful and only after I knew the basics.

(ADDING: And I didn’t have to contend with the serious junk streamed by @ComfortablySmug. It was admirably policed and sorted out in the end, but who needs it?)

That’s just my experience, and for what it is worth. But that’s social media: tailored to individual experience. It’s hard to know what everyone else is seeing. I’m sure others experienced it differently, and I see we’ll be hearing more about it.

In fact, Hurricane Sandy could be seen as useful test case of social media’s utility during a disaster. After all, disasters and other breaking news events are when social media typically shine. And New York is a social media capital.

One idea would be to study, a la Pew, social media’s strengths and weaknesses as a newsgathering and distribution device before and during Sandy, say October 28-29: who used it, how, where it did best, where it actually made things worse. Right now, no one really knows. But right now Sandy does not seem like coming out party for the utility of social media in a crisis. (ADDING AGAIN: And, once the outrage has died down, @ComfortablySmug is another case that needs closer study. How to deter the panic-monger?)

You get the feeling its potential as a public utility is far from realized, particularly during big breaking news event when news becomes more than an abstraction.


Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.