Update 11/2 2:10 p.m. : The 3D-printing company Shapeways announced Thursday the company was “back online,” with power restored to their servers and printers.
In the days and hours leading up to the arrival of Superstorm Sandy in the New York area, the storm looked like it might end up being the most-photographed, most-tweeted and most-blogged-about natural disaster in history. In fact, so many remarkable photos of Sandy were being shared on Twitter and Instagram that even the major news organizations with a boots-on-the-ground presence in the region were actively encouraging people to send in their photos. At one point, according to Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom, 10 photos of Hurricane Sandy were being shared every second.
That narrative about technology and the power of social media, however, is starting to shift in the aftermath of the storm as millions of people in New York City suddenly confront a life without power and without public transportation. All of those would-be citizen journalists sending out Instagram photos of a darkened New York skyline or tweeting out updates from their neighborhood — they all require power for their digital devices — and that’s something that many people in the New York area no longer have.
In lower Manhattan and in neighborhoods stretching up to 34th Street — precisely the area where many of New York’s fledgling start-ups are located — the power has been shut off completely and may not be restored for days. Other startups are located in neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, a vibrant community in Brooklyn that just so happens to be part of the dreaded Zone A, the site of forced evacuations from New York. For these start-ups, their ability to weather the impact of the storm may not come down to the ingenuity of their founders or the brilliance of their business plans. It may come down to something much more prosaic — pure geography. Where is your company located, how about your employees and perhaps, most importantly, where are your servers?
For now, the impact on New York City’s tech community is unclear. However, messages from company founders are starting to roll in, and, as the New York Times suggests, they point to a patchwork quilt system of continued operation as companies struggle to remain open. Media sites like Gawker, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed — the lifeblood of memes and ideas for many — have struggled to shift to alternate publishing platforms and servers located outside of the disaster zone. All have gone dark for at least a short period of time.
But what about New York’s other start-ups outside of social media?
The story there may be more complex. Shapeways, one of the pioneers of the 3D printing movement and an up-and-coming company applauded by Mayor Bloomberg, contacted its customers and fans in the aftermath of the storm with discouraging updates via both Twitter and e-mail: both its headquarters and servers are currently cut off from power, many of its team members remain without power, and a few are busy repairing damaged homes. Its Web site remains down. Fab, a fast-growing Pinterest-inspired social commerce site, also reached out to its supporters in the aftermath of Sandy with similar news: its office, located just one block from the Hudson River, “is currently without power and it is closed until further notice.” Its warehouses, located in New Jersey, are also currently without power and, as of Oct. 31, were closed, unable to ship packages.
The good news is that Twitter — just as it has in the past — continues to act as a highly effective news transmission mechanism for people to follow the progress of the cleanup and restoration of service in the aftermath of the storm. And there are moments of levity that lighten the profound sense of sadness that comes from seeing part of your city destroyed or submerged, such as the updates from @ElBloombito, the Spanish-speaking Twitter feed that parodies Mayor Bloomberg’s Spanish-language storm updates. And Newark Mayor Cory Booker is still “Super Cory” on Twitter, addressing individual complaints in real-time, warning of upcoming hazards, delivering coloring books to children and working to rescue the city's homeless — at least according to his tweets.
Sandy started out as a story about one of the most impressive feats of citizen-journalism ever in the New York area, where amateurs teamed up with the professionals to direct news crews to the most important disaster sites and helped people make sense of the storm’s impact in real-time with iconic photography. However, if the clean-up and recovery process begins to drag on for a frustrating or interminable amount of time, the media capital of the world may have a little too much time on its hands. Woe betide Con Edison if they’re not “On It” (as their slogan has it) or to the much-maligned and heavily-impacted MTA if the subway remains out-of-service. That is, of course, as long as the power — somewhere — remains on.
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