Social networks on Web get higher calling in storm

Twitter and Facebook are usually used to update friends about what users are doing, their relationships and gossip, but as winter weather moved into Kentucky this week, the online social-media outlets became a nerve center for observations and news about the storm.

On Tuesday, just like neighbors used to talk about the weather over the back fence, Twitter messages, or "tweets," and Facebook status lines started buzzing with everything from funny observations about the storm to serious information about power outages and downed trees.

Lexington musician Fred Hanchett wrote on Tuesday afternoon, "Started out with a block of ice and chiseled it into a working automobile! OK, it was my car to begin with."

There was some chatter about The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore reporting from Paducah and whether that was an omen that we were doomed.

As evening fell and the icy buildup increased, the messages sent into the online ether became more ominous.

"The pole transformers sound like gunfire when they short out," Allan Courtney wrote on his Twitter account. "Kind of eerie."

Environmental scientist Tom Kimmerer wrote about transformers exploding around south Lexington and observed, "The house is so quiet without power. Dogs breathing, cat walking around, one clock ticking."

In an interview, Courtney said Wednesday, "When you try to explain things like Twitter and Facebook to people, they look at you like it's insignificant and superfluous, but situations like this show how important they are."

Noting that he could see geographic patterns of power outages through the updates of his Twitter friends, Lexington new media marketing consultant Scott Clark said, "Kentucky Utilities should be watching Twitter, because they'd probably have a better idea where they need to be going."

As Tuesday progressed and news of power failures persisted, some people posted messages saying that they had power and that friends without electricity were welcome to come over to their house. Others shared that on the third snow day off school, their kids were starting to get cabin fever.

"Participating in a social media conversation is like group therapy in a stressful situation," Clark said.

Some people shared the stress of the ice and its impact.

On Facebook, Penny Mazur wrote that she was "wishing the wind would blow away from the house, and the wires, and the truck. Oh look! I just wished for a tornado!"

Others wrote about job stress, like WLAP-630 AM reporter Karyn Czar, who posted, "Please stop driving so I can stop having to talk about not driving!" A :-) ended her post.

Others, like Jennifer Miller, wrote about little miracles: "Had 2nd thoughts about scraping off the car and driving to the studio in freezing rain. Then came home to find a huge tree branch where the car had been parked."

Clark and Courtney both said that social-media outlets were not readily available during the 2003 ice storm. Courtney, an avid photographer, said chatting on social media and posting pictures online helped him get his mind off things like wondering whether the power would go out.

And now, Clark found that he could keep up even without power feeding his computer, thanks to his iPhone.

"Mobile devices like these are like the battery-powered transistor radio of the '50s," Clark said of Internet-capable smartphones. "Even when the electricity is out, I can still check the news and check in with my friends."

And he can still talk about the weather, just in a different way.