The importance of social media platforms tends to emerge during natural disasters.
The tsunami in Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina, and the Haiti quake all were accompanied by a surge in the use of various social media that demonstrated they were good for more than marketing campaigns and idle chat. YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook all earned props for the important roles they played.
A certain legitimacy also accrued to social media with mainstream media adoption. (Remember when Rick Sanchez started using Twitter on his CNN program?)
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, another social channel has assumed its place as a mainstay. Instagram was not only the main service people used to share their images of the superstorm (at a clip of 10 per second), but it was also a primary source of pictures for CNN, Time magazine, and other major media outlets.
By noon on Oct. 30, as the storm cut its deadly swath along the East Coast, more than 300,000 photos had been shared with the #sandy hashtag in addition to 144,000 with the #hurricanesandy tag and another 23,000 using the #frankenstorm tag.
“There are now 10 pictures per second being posted with the hashtag #sandy,” Instagram founder Kevin Systrom said in a statement published by the Poynter Institute.
During Hurricane Irene, developers from The New York Times and Facebook collaborated to create Instacane, a gateway to storm-related Instagram photos. Instacane roared back to life as Sandy gained steam.
Mainstream media’s adoption of Instagram coincided with the concentration of public images via the service. Time recruited five professional photographers to use Instagram to document Sandy and its aftermath. According to Time LightBox producer Vaughn Wallace:
“Working from different locations across the Atlantic seaboard, they captured ordinary people getting ready to greet the superstorm. And when Sandy made landfall the night of Oct. 29, they braved rising floodwaters, high winds and driving sheets of rain to photograph the storm’s impact on several communities.”
Audiences could see the images on Time‘s Instagram account. Meanwhile, CNN promoted the use of Instagram as a key resource for its iReports. The cable news network even curated the Instagram photos it received, using Storify, the free curation service. Other news outlets tapped into Instagram images, as well.
Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and other networks also provided a steady flow of imagery—Adi Robertson, writing for The Verge, quoted New York City Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot saying, “On Twitter and Instagram, there’s incredible documentation happening across the various boroughs that helps us to better allocate resources … We get a lot of information that previously wasn’t there.”
But it was Instagram that served as the source of images for media redistribution, including NBC in its live blog covering the hurricane.
A year ago, the notion of Instagram becoming a key vehicle for conveying the scope and details of a widespread disaster would have seemed far-fetched; it hadn’t even been made available to the legions of Android users.
Now its mainstream adoption is undeniable. Even social note-worthies like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh have embraced it. Hsieh, once a hardcore Twitter advocate, has all but abandoned Twitter for Instagram, noting that Twitter, while good for making announcements, has lost its intimate chatty feel, something he has rediscovered on Instagram.
The combination of its ease-of-use, mobile-only nature, and place at the front of the visual-social trend has propelled Instagram into the pantheon of mainstream social channels, one that is increasingly difficult for any organization to ignore. Its role during Sandy will undoubtedly open the door to even more uses by individuals, companies, and news organizations.