Blizzard of 2015: Analyzing Social Media

February 3, 2015

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

It was said to be a blizzard for the record books. Store shelves across the Northeast were picked clean. Mayors from major U.S. cities began to warn the public of the impending doom. Social media is a critical component during any disaster, and a blizzard is no exception.

“This could be the biggest snowstorm in the history of this city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference days before the storm arrived.

So what’s the big deal? The media hype surrounding the “blizzard of 2015” was intense. Press conferences were doom and gloom while media hype was breaking the barometer. Social media responded with massive amounts of chatter. It’s not surprising given the amount of media attention that was given to the storm system. Let’s take a look at what occurred on social media.

The Conversation Before The Storm…

Blizzard of 2015 Hashtags

Hashtag usage on Facebook and Twitter in the days leading up to the Blizzard of 2015.

The chatter really began the night before the storm moved in. This is not surprising as the storm became a meteorological certainty and local governments began issuing dire warnings. The data shows #BlizzardOf2015 was the preferred hashtag to discuss the pending storm, followed by #Snowpocalypse/#Snowmageddon2015, and #Juno2015 being pushed by the Weather Channel.

The Blizzard Begins… On Social Media

On Monday, January 26 the storm arrived on the east coast. Residents across the region braved the storm and headed to work or to local stores for last minute preparations. Monday is never an easy day to commute, especially when snow is beginning to accumulate.

Social media exploded with photos and first-hand accounts from people showing what conditions were like in their neighborhood. The volume of the conversation on social media increased Monday by 848% compared to Sunday.

Social media conversation volume during Blizzard of 2015.

Social media conversation volume on Monday, January 26.

During the first day of the blizzard (January 26) snow was just beginning and many people were still emotionally tied to the idea a historic blizzard. Many were tweeting photos from local grocery stores, roadways and even their own backyard measuring the snowfall with a ruler. This is a common behavior during timely events. Social media users feel the need to document it from their own perspective. This is likely due to users wanting to feel like they were a part of the event itself, or feel closer to their community by sharing their own experience. As January 27 approached things took a dramatic change.

The Blizzard Turns To Flurries on Day 2

Blizzard of 2015 social conversation

Day 2 of the blizzard shows significant changes in the social conversation.

The next day brought a change to the social media conversation. On the graph above you’ll see the conversation flattened out at a rather steady level throughout much of the day on January 26. Things slowed down overnight as people slept but suddenly began to spike around 5 a.m. Tuesday morning. This flurry of activity was largely morning tweets and Facebook posts showing what the storm dumped overnight, or more likely, didn’t dump while users slept. There was no flat peak observed on January 27 but rather a massive steady decline in content as many people became disillusioned.  Suddenly the “historic blizzard of 2015” just became another snowstorm.

What This Tells Us

Social media is a significant part of any major crisis, including large-scale weather events. Many people are frustrated that meteorologists and government officials were pumping up this storm to epic proportions even when there was variability in the forecast computer models. However, would you rather prepare the public out of caution or go with your gut and suddenly your city is thrown into utter chaos? It’s easy to see why public officials tend to air on the side of caution in situations like these.

Social media was buzzing about the possibility of a blizzard of epic proportions. Most residents on the east coast got nothing but a little snow and a whole lot of hype.

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