Fast Forward: Social networks keep people connected after major storms

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By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

The past two months in the Washington area have been good for shovels, skis -- and social networks.

This winter's extraordinary series of snowstorms has blanketed streets, shut offices and schools, and impacted Metro lines. But they haven't stopped people from connecting over everything from neighborhood e-mail lists to Twitter and Facebook.

Duh, you say: That's what the Internet does, uniting people with shared interests regardless of distance. Only in this case, the distances were measured in mere miles, and you only had to remember the region's last epic-scale winter storms to see what a dramatic difference "social media" made this time around.

Consider: In 1996, digital cameras were obscurities and the Internet didn't allow any meaningful media sharing; as a snowbound District denizen, I could only write e-mails about the experience. In 2003, most Internet users still lacked broadband connections and digital cameras, while mobile Internet access was a joke. Both times, there were no widely used social-networking sites that made it easy to reach out to nearby Internet users.

But in the years since, digital photography, broadband Internet and social networks have become commonplace -- and smartphones allow the chatter to continue, at least for a few hours, even if the power goes out. When the world turns to white, your horizons no longer must end with your building, your block or your cul-de-sac.

So in December and again over the past week, the likes of Facebook and Flickr have filled up with photos of yardsticks in snow, cars covered in snow, trees weighed down by snow, children dwarfed by snowdrifts and so on -- not to mention nifty time-lapse videos generated from those pictures.

Twitter users have swapped notes about the state of their streets, accumulations in back yards and the performance of Metro using "hashtags" (so called after the hash-mark symbol preceding each keyword), such as "#snowpocaplyse," "#snowmageddon," "#snoverkill" and so on.

More ambitious users have used social media to schedule snowball fights and recruit neighbors for sidewalk-shoveling campaigns.

The oldest form of online social media, the neighborhood e-mail list, showed its continued relevance next to these commercial competitors. My Arlington neighborhood's list has provided reports about the progress of snowplows, the availability of shovelers and the status of shops and restaurants within walking distance.

All these things are good for cabin-fevered residents looking for some sort of human contact. They are also good for companies running mass-market social networks, for whom more traffic means more advertising dollars.

Considering these sites' escalating popularity, it shouldn't surprise anybody that Google wants to get into this business. On Tuesday, the Mountain View, Calif., company unveiled an ambitious social service called Google Buzz (http://buzz.google.com), built on top of its Gmail site.

A quick test of Buzz might suggest it was engineered for the Snowpocaplyse. It automatically suggests other Buzz users based on whom you e-mail most often in Google's Web-mail service, and lets you choose how many of your Gmail contacts should see updates that you'd rather not publish to the entire Web.

Buzz easily lets you share not just text but Web links, photos and videos -- as well as content plucked off other sites, such as Flickr and Twitter. On many smartphones, the Buzz site and Google's Maps program let you tag Buzz updates with your current location (a check Thursday showed four neighbors who had done so). Google's plans to build Buzz on Internet standards should make its benefits easy to access in other sites and software.

But if you look at how people connect on the Web during events such as snowstorms, you're likely to see some contrary evidence. The success of Twitter and its strict limits -- a thought cannot exceed 140 characters -- indicate that we value simplicity over features. A look at how much more information we share on neighborhood mailing lists -- where people use their real names and often include their street addresses -- compared with Facebook and other large social hubs suggests that it's easier to deal with multiple social circles than to master one site's powerful but complex privacy settings.

For connected types accustomed to thinking about "social-media strategies" as marketing and public-relations professionals might, Buzz could be tremendously useful.

But for many regulars of social networks, Buzz may look like a solution to a problem they don't care to see solved. We get through blizzards in half-measures and improvisations, and that seems a good way to tend our social Webs online, too.

Living with technology, or trying to? Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.


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