Petty complaints about Irene stand out on social media landscape

    A few bad apples really spoiled the mood on social networks in the days of Hurricane Irene’s trip up the East Coast. Whether they were making petty complaints about travel delays or snarking about Irene’s supposedly wimpy showing in the Northeast, the arrogance of “man vs. nature” got pretty ugly.

    Life is getting back to normal in the Delaware Valley after Hurricane Irene spun her chaos throughout the region. Transportation systems into and out of the area are nearly back to full power. And despite some damage and flooding, we skated by pretty luckily down here, all things considered.

    A hurricane is kind of a big deal. On the day of impact, you can forget about how things are supposed to happen normally. The day after, you can expect a lot of clean-up and rescheduling; maybe a few flights and a few buses. Not until a good couple of days after the storm can you really expect anything approaching a regular routine to resume.

    Most people feel inspired to band together and push through. Solidarity was in full bloom on social networks, where activity overwhelming centered around checking in on people’s safety and spreading reports of the latest details.

    So the small but noisy minority of petty tweets and Facebook posts about travel delays I saw were doubly disappointing.

    Just as the category 1 hurricane was making landfall in North Carolina on Friday—when thousands of people were simultaneously calling airlines to make changes to their itineraries—I saw someone complain on Twitter about how long she was on hold.

    On Saturday, when Delaware, Eastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey were getting battered, I saw a number of tweets blasting airline customer service.

    With 9,000 flights canceled, no kidding you’re going to be on hold. And no matter where you are in the United States or where you’re going, you can bet that your flight is going to be affected.

    The day after the hurricane hit Philly, I saw someone wailing about his “third-world” air travel experience out of town. Later that day, a disgruntled discount bus customer declared that he would never buy a ticket on that service again. In fact they were both lucky to be on any mode of transportation out of here that early.

    By then, the storm was directly responsible for about 30 deaths in 10 states and power outages for something like four million people. And those numbers were on the rise. Plus, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, cities were dealing with—or preparing for—tremendous flooding and billions of dollars of damage. And this was before we had heard anything about Vermont.

    But I saw something that irked me even more than whiny travelers: the even larger litany of complaints that the storm was not living up to expectations or—worse—boring, because it didn’t happen to do much damage where they happen live.

    I guess when cable news turns a natural disaster into entertainment TV, people feel let down by anything less than a Michael Bay special-effects summer blockbuster. But this hurricane wasn’t here to entertain us. This wasn’t reality TV; it was reality. And just because Irene was “only” a tropical storm by the time it reached New York City doesn’t change the fact that it was a full-tilt hurricane south of there.

    Even in the Big Apple, trees went down in Brooklyn and storm surges flooded Battery Park. But I saw someone in Queens twitpic a fallen leaf and glibly tout it as “storm damage.”

    Twitter and Facebook were a gold mine of bad jokes. How many times did I see New Yorkers compare Irene to a rube with Big City dreams but who just couldn’t hack it?

    Maybe it’s just a reflection of the hubris that can come with survival. You’re happy to be safe, but it’s easier to be funny than it is to be grateful. The distance of social media and its illusion of detachment can leave people feeling entitled to say all kinds of ungracious things. You may have had the luxury of merrily tweeting away the hours of confinement in your living room or the airport terminal, but countless others were far busier bailing water, wading through a soup of lost lives and sodden memories, and swimming literally against the tide.

    Maybe you should put down your smart phone and give someone a hand. The least you can do is cut the rest of us a break.


    Eric Walter is a web producer at NewsWorks. Follow him on Twitter @ericaceous.


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