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How Five Top Sandy Stories Spread Through the Social Web, and What They Teach Us

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Flickr: 24andDitmars
Flickr: 24andDitmars

The water has receded and the US east coast is getting to work on rebuilding its soaked, wind-torn cities. As with all events of global importance, Sandy dominated the top worldwide stories on social news dashboard NewsWhip Spike, as people shared the latest storm news. After the storm moved on, we took a deeper look at how five top Sandy stories, plucked at random from the worldwide view of Spike on Tuesday, spread through the social web.

1. A shocking headline makes us sharing-inclined

Business Insider - Building Facade Collapses In Manhattan At 8th And 14th Street

We definitely sat up and took notice when this story was first posted under the headline "Major Building Collapse In Manhattan At 8th And 14th Street" - and it seems like everyone else did. Published at 22:43 GMT, our first numbers for this article, ten minutes later, had it at 62 total Facebook interactions and 130 tweets, launching it right to the top of NewsWhip's leaderboard of currently trending stories with an initial speed of 1152 interactions per hour (that's Facebook shares, likes and comments, plus Tweets).

Just after the story hit its top speed of 4532 interactions per hour, Business Insider corrected the headline to reflect that the building's facade was the only casualty rather than a total collapse, but this story was well on its way. We noticed that this story picked up a lot more heat on Twitter than Facebook initially - perhaps an indication of the value of a shocking headline on the minimalist medium.

2. The truth will out

BuzzFeed - 11 Viral Photos That Aren't Hurricane Sandy
They say that a lie can get halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on, but with BuzzFeed and a host of other news outlets verifying every piece of content that landed onscreen during Sandy, these photos that had been spread around the web by credulous Tweeters and Facebookers didn't stand a chance.

This one first popped up on the NewsWhip engine's radar at 17:48 GMT, ten minutes after it was first tweeted out by BuzzFeed staff, by which time it had already been linked to in 147 tweets, and shared on Facebook 46 times. With an immediate social speed of 1608 shares per hour, it was launched immediately into Spike's one-hour list. In a world where everyone can be a publisher, this piece showed the value of professional journalists rolling up their sleeves and getting down to some good old-fashioned fact-checking.

3. Citizen journalists are everywhere in a crisis

Business Insider - Stunning Images of Manhattan Underwater

It's one thing to report on what's happening during a disaster, but quite another to see what the ordinary people living through it see. Business Insider collected a series of reader-submitted photos of a drenched Manhattan, including a remarkable shot of seawater flowing into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

This was a slow burner at the start, notching up a still-impressive 423 interactions in its first hour, putting it towards the bottom of the crowded Spike one-hour view, but as Business Insider staffers added more incredible first-hand pictures to the story, we saw its speed pick up to just over 1100 shares/hour two hours after publication, no doubt aided and abetted by a new all-caps headline.

It's testament to the technological revolution we're living through that a digital publication can show the world what ordinary citizens, equipped with nothing more than a smartphone, are seeing, pretty much in real time. It's clear that this appeals to readers too, judging by the social response to this story.

4. A natural disaster won't divert attention from your PR disaster

Mashable - American Apparel Angers Twittersphere with "Hurricane Sandy Sale"

No luck for the marketing department at American Apparel, whose piggybacking on a deadly natural disaster attracted a lot of negative mentions on Twitter, some of which were collected by Mashable for this story.


One of the first rules of PR is that if something that reflects badly on your brand is going to come out, better that it comes out when everyone's focused on something else. Unfortunately, in this case it seems that there was plenty of attention left over for the clothing company's tactless promo. With many tweeters already focused on the topic, this story exploded onto Twitter, having already racked up 668 tweets 14 minutes after publication. Although it attracted less attention on Facebook, an initial rate of 3047 interactions per hour qualified it for the top of Spike one-hour straight out of the gates.

5. Readers "Like" stories that are in tune with their emotions

Yahoo! News - Guards at Tomb of the Unknowns to remain on-site during hurricane

Although a supposed mid-Sandy snap of three guards standing in the rain at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery had gone viral earlier during Sandy's approach, it was actually a photo from a less perilous storm in September. However, Yahoo! Political Reporter Chris Moody spotted how people had reacted to the idea of the sentinels standing guard, risking life and limb in dedication to their duty, and decided to replace the half-baked, inaccurate meme with some real reporting - he got on the phone to Arlington Cemetery and was told that "they will not abandon their post".

NewsWhip first checked the story's social credentials at 12:20 EST, and over the next hour it picked up 2,934 interactions: straight to the top of Spike one-hour. This was primarily a Facebook story - its Facebook interactions over the first 24 hours outnumbered tweets 56:1. Indeed, breaking down the types of Facebook interaction, it was clear that this was a "Like"-heavy story. After 24 hours it had accrued 9,084 shares, 5,627 comments and a whopping 27,279 likes.

Sandy brought a heady dose of fear to the East Coast, and people were proud to stand behind those who would weather the storm in the name of national honor. Certainly, a thumbs-up gesture of appreciation was not much to ask.

For anyone on the East Coast, or with loved ones there, social media and our hyper-fast online press made Sandy felt like a shared event, characterised by messages of support and offers of showers on Facebook, and exchanging information with strangers on Twitter. Social media is still young: perhaps this is a taste of how it will bring all of us closer to major events - good and bad - in the future.

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