Sandy, Social Media and Journalism's New Frontier

Pedestrians huddle under their umbrellas in Times Square, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in New York. Hurricane Sandy continued on it
Pedestrians huddle under their umbrellas in Times Square, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in New York. Hurricane Sandy continued on its path Monday, as the storm forced the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds and soaking rain. (AP Photo/ John Minchillo)

I'm not exactly sure when on Monday night that it happened, but sometime around 10 p.m. I realized that my Twitter feed and Facebook page were delivering far more interesting, consistent and complete coverage of Sandy's havoc than the televised news ever could.

By now, the trope that is hurricane coverage has gotten tired: the intrepid, squinting, plastic-coated newsie standing on a shore as the waves rise and fall all around. We've seen it all before. For as long as there has been television news broadcasts, it would seem, this scene has replayed itself again and again. But the picture these images consistently present is the same, even though the names of the storms and location may change. What's worse, because the television news always has to guess where the action will be, the coverage is fixed, static, like watching a football game through a camera trained on a small patch of grass around the 35-yard line.

While traditional journalism was locked in its well-worn ways, social media painted quite a different picture. Whether it was the images of trees that had fallen on the houses of friends in Queens or Park Slope, the video of an exploding power station on the East Side of Manhattan, or visions of water rushing into a Path Station, my friends, their friends and their friends-of-friends-of-friends were all sharing the images unfolding before them, and this real time, composite picture of the storm gave me a much better sense of what was happening throughout the five boroughs than that camera trained on the 35-yard line ever could.

And these images of the city I had lived in and love were harrowing to say the least.

Born in Brooklyn, but raised on Long Island, I had made the city my home for twenty years of my adult life. I had seen the crack epidemic ravage the Bronx in the 1980s and a recession rip through the Lower East Side and Harlem in the early 1990s. The planes of terrorists cut a hole out of the skyline and my heart. I had reveled in parades, festivals and block parties, and even enjoyed a blackout with friends on a warm summer day in 2003. While nothing can compare to the damage caused by the senseless acts of September 11th, the images of waste-deep firefighters wading towards a fire, the carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park surrounded by water and the devastation in Breezy Point, all compose a picture so poignant, powerful, indelible and unique, that Sandy will be etched in memories for years.

Just as this storm's exploits seemed to elicit sense memories of a lifetime of experiences in New York -- summer days in the Rockaways and Coney Island, nights with my son in the NICU at NYU Medical Center -- Sandy will serve as a touchstone, a measuring stick against which all future storms will be measured.

But, like waters flowing into the sewers, undaunted, pundits and the professional chattering class will now rush in, tell us what we are supposed to think, convince us global warming has nothing to do with it, and remind us that this "once in a century" storm was not anything anyone ever predicted.

But for one night, the traditional journalistic techniques were of no use against Sandy's fury. Rather, thousands upon thousands of micro-documentarists took to their windows, the streets, and the internet to track Sandy's paces and share them with the world. The pointillist vision crafted by many hands offered not just a sense of the events as they transpired, but also of the emotion -- the fear, the determination, and even the wonder -- shared by those in the midst of the catastrophe. Tweeted pictures from mobile phones flew over the ether; Facebook posts kept everyone informed and connected, even as the power and light faded; and common sense punditry prevailed. Just as Clay Shirky tells us, the barriers to entry were down, and everyone had a thought, a vision, an idea and a prognosis. And there was time for humor too. Images of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man descending on Manhattan, resurrected from his gory, cinematic death, circulated in sardonic cheer.

While we had to deal with imposters and posers creating stories of the storm, I never doubted that my circle of friends and informants were true and real and speaking from the heart, sharing what was before their very eyes. And while traditional journalism may not be dead, for one night, I was grateful for my friends, and their friends, and their friends-of-friends, to keep me close, in touch, and in tune with the true heartbeat of the city, something a newscast has never done.