As Sandy hit the east coast, many of us were watching the situation closely. This meant watching not only big media but also Facebook and Twitter, where storm-related activity was plentiful. The social media news was personal, reporting on the storm not as a large-scale atmospheric system but as the weather outside the living room window. We know whose power was out, whose wasn’t; we know who saw flooding and who just saw rain; we know who was drinking wine and who was drinking beer. We even know approximately when many went to bed. Stories in big media and even in blogspace, on the other hand, tended toward the documentary: ConEdison transformer explosion on the lower east side; flooding up to 14th Street; partial building collapse on 8th Avenue.
While the latter group may have been much more informative in the conventional sense, the former group was much more illuminating. True, the “news” version of Sandy was formally conventional, but even in the details it was macroscopic and opaque. Each detail in big media was merely a data point supporting the larger context, the bigger story. Eighth Avenue, for example, was just another dot in New York City and, more generally, the Atlantic coast, while on social media, Eighth Avenue belonged to the people living there; it became a geography all its own, rather than a mathematical point in a much larger geography. In the news, Sandy was a national meteorological event. In social media, Sandy was the particular experience of an unusual afternoon and evening by a particular community.
As someone experiencing the event from afar, the difference was stark. It was difficult to emotionally reconcile the two accounts, to see them as treating one and the same reality. It still feels as though the connective tissue linking macronews to microblogging is missing. Where is the ontological middle ground? Does our cultural metaphysics allow for it?
Of particular interest, in any case, were the Sandy photos, which comprised three genres of reporting.
News media images. The news coverage of the event provided the predictable series of disaster shots—cars floating in a parking-garage-turned-bathtub, video of a transformer explosion, a building missing a facade, and so on. These are ruthlessly documentary, but also highly selective. They didn’t show the limits of the disaster, only the disaster itself, excluding any of the terrain of non-disaster or non-damage from coverage. These lacked context. They covered the territory, but only its physical geography—completely excluded were its emotional, political, and cultural geography and context. The house without a facade becomes, at best, our own house without a facade. Whether the resulting cognitive image is just the house in question or our own house, the view is impoverished in either case in relation to the totality that is Sandy and its place in our world.
Personal social media images. On social media the expected cell-phone-out-window shots were plentiful, indirectly showing Sandy from the perspective of individual nighttime routines. These were intimate and visceral, giving a deep sense of the experience of the storm, of what the massive weather system is and feels like at the level of personal experience. There was some damage, but also a great deal of non-damage, and perhaps more importantly, much that fell in between these extremes.
Meme-style social media images. There were also, however, images on social media that operated in an entirely different way from either of the other two groups. One such image gave the satellite view of Sandy superimposed over a to-scale map of Europe, rather than the Atlantic coast. Another showed a massive storm overtaking the Statue of Liberty with help from, thanks to some Photoshop work, Godzilla, invading alien flying saucers, and monsters of various stripes from Hollywood films.
At first glance, the meme-style images are more guilty than the other two of showing Sandy out of context. But I suspect that this first glance is misleading.
Every moment is marked by a particular set of crises, and the moment of Sandy’s arrival is no different in this regard. Sandy arrives after the beginning of a new millenium beset with wars following terrorist attacks, a recent history of natural disasters and calamities with political importance, worries about and analysis of the accelerating effects of globalization, a growing worldwide public consciousness about climate change, a global economic collapse, and the resurgence of worlwide sectarian, student, and populist movements of various (and at times novel) stripes.
Other Sandy juxtapositions are to a U.S. national election with large implications for the future of many of the issues above, to ongoing handwringing about the viability of the E.U. along various axes, and ongoing instability and violence of various forms in the Middle East.
While both the highly personal social media form of reporting and the more conventional mass media news reporting of Sandy drew the circle of knowledge and understanding around the storm in geographically local ways—micro-local (“my living room”) in the case of the personal images and macro-local (“the U.S. Atlantic coast”) in the case of mainstream mass media, the meme-style images drew the circle globally.
The image of the storm over Europe pulled the two geographies into dialogue with one another and into dialogue with a global discussion on climate change and its impacts. It drew metaphorical parallels between the storms (meteorological and otherwise) currently affecting the United States and the storms of various stripes that have overtaken the E.U. and its member states. Just as importantly, it brought commenters from from around the world into policy conversation that placed Sandy properly in larger geopolitical and environmental contexts. Neither of the other genres of representation or reporting on Sandy did this. In this particular monadic image, Sandy was transformed—from a meterological event affecting the American northeast into a global event directly related to public issues, concerns, and choices shared across continents.
The image Sandy overtaking the Statue of Liberty accompanied by various monsters of film, not all of them American, situated Sandy within the global cultural imaginary, referring not just to a metaphorical understanding, but also to what Sandy portends. Once again, the event was internationalized. Here, however, it was also fictionalized (and yet, as process, nominally realized at the same time). The image drew attention to the narrativity, indeed even the restlessness of events; it laid bare the fictive, evolving, interpretive, and power-entangled natures of memory and experience. It recast Sandy as part of story that is being collectively written by humanity right now, rising action in a contested plot that begins with the industrial revolution and whose articulation and end remain unavoidably open—but always with the clear potential for—and claims about—historical, climactic, and indeed various forms of monstrous catastrophe.
The documentation of the event as I saw it inverted the conventional wisdom about news, reporting, and knowledge. The images and details in the mass media told us the least about Sandy; in them, the storm became another in a long line of archetypal storms, and the northeast of the U.S. was cast in a familiar and by now largely information-poor role: the dual-natured indomitable-American-community and community-of-victims. The storm, the locale, and the population might have been anywhere, at any time. The entirety lacked specificity, and thus historical purchase, despite itself.
The personal out-the-window photos on social media, though this genre often faces criticisms of facility and narcissism, were practically informative, giving details of the experience of this storm as separate from others, and of particular people who were not, as a result, demoted to the uninformative role of human statistics. As was not generally the case with news media coverage, using these it was possible to piece together an understanding of the specific nature and level of damage in various areas, of the degree of the emergency and the relative difficulty of recovering, as well as the general mood of this population in this storm.
But the whimsical and unashamedly constructed meme-like images of the storm told us perhaps the most, in their composition, by their circulation, and in the comments that followed them. These drew the storm into the dialogue on policy and the policy difficulties that we increasingly face as simultaneously local and global publics. They revealed as much or more about the consciousnesses and moods of these in New York, in New Jersey, but also in the U.K., in Finland, and on the Pacific Rim, than did the montage of camera phone photos. They drew our attention to the historicity of this storm, and the contingency of this historicity, placed public policy in juxtaposition to these, and reflected on the experiences and natures of present publics and constituencies that have also, after all, experienced Sandy in various ways—in fact—around the world.