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Snowed in, in the age of hashtags

  • A woman checks her mobile phone outside Lincoln Center, home of New York's Fashion Week shows, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. In New York City, the snow total in Central Park was 8.1 inches by 3 a.m. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

    A woman checks her mobile phone outside Lincoln Center, home of New York's Fashion Week shows, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. In New York City, the snow total in Central Park was 8.1 inches by 3 a.m. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A woman checks her mobile phone outside Lincoln Center, home of New York's Fashion Week shows, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. In New York City, the snow total in Central Park was 8.1 inches by 3 a.m. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

    A woman checks her mobile phone outside Lincoln Center, home of New York's Fashion Week shows, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. In New York City, the snow total in Central Park was 8.1 inches by 3 a.m. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A woman checks her mobile phone outside Lincoln Center, home of New York's Fashion Week shows, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. In New York City, the snow total in Central Park was 8.1 inches by 3 a.m. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
  • A woman checks her mobile phone outside Lincoln Center, home of New York's Fashion Week shows, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. In New York City, the snow total in Central Park was 8.1 inches by 3 a.m. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The East Coast woke up under a blanket of snow a couple of weekends ago and collectively documented the experience on the social and mobile inventions of the past decade. Facebook, Twitter and other technologies make it difficult to stay isolated — even if you’re stuck home alone.

“The funny thing is that I actually checked my Instagram feed before I even looked out my own window,” says Eric Witz, who lives in Medford.

On Saturday, Witz posted a photo of his car stuck under a “6-foot-high snow drift.”

“I always have my phone on me. So checking these things is something I do instinctively when I wake up,” he says. “That probably makes me a sad social media cliché, but it’s the truth.”

As Northeasterners posted photo after photo of kids sledding in Central Park and suburbanites conquering Mount Snowmore with their shovels, West Coast wags teased with tweets of sunshine and snapshots of palm trees.

Call it what you will: The Hashtag Snowstorm, the latest Snowpocalypse or Snowtorious B.I.G. The weekend whiteout was a lifetime away from the blizzard of 1978, a world not just without social media but one devoid of endless Weather Channel warnings and the lifeline of mobile phones.

Even the past two years have upended the way we receive information. We’ve moved from posting a status update with words to sharing photos and videos taken on smartphones.

Kathy Tracy was in junior high school when that famous snowstorm hit West Haven, Conn., 35 years ago, leaving as much as 27 inches of snow on the Northeast. She still lives there today, and some things haven’t changed. Snow is still snow, and people still wait for the streets to be cleared, hoping there is enough food and toilet paper to get by.

Getting updates of the e_SSRq78 blizzard meant turning on the radio or watching evening news programs. After the recent storm, Tracy says she turned to Twitter and nonstop news coverage to stay informed. She also follows a meteorologist on Facebook and receives updates from CNN, The Wall Street Journal and other news outlets.

“I guess what’s better is that you are not sitting here waiting for the 6 o’clock news, waiting to find out what’s going on,” she says.

As people across the Northeast awaited plow trucks, looked for flights to resume or simply tried to kill time, they plucked away on their smartphones and tablet computers to document every inch of the snowfall. On Facebook, mentions of the word “snow” jumped 15-fold from earlier in the week, the company said. On Sunday, one of the most-used terms in status updates was “no school tomorrow” as students rejoiced and parents shared updates.

By Sunday afternoon, people on Instagram used the hashtag “Nemo” (the Weather Channel’s unofficial name for the storm) 583,641 times in describing their photos, according to Venueseen, a company that helps businesses track marketing campaigns on Instagram. The Facebook-owned photo-sharing site is where Witz posted a photo that his sister sent him from Hamden, Conn., one of the hardest-hit areas.

“I like Instagram because it gives you a more personal, immediate sense of peoples’ experiences in real time,” he says.

It’s easy to be nostalgic about how much things have changed since the blizzard of e_SSRq78 when it comes to the speed of information and how it’s consumed. But the changes continue.

“What really struck me this time around, and with (Superstorm) Sandy too, is not so much that people were sharing information, but that they were sharing photos and video,” says Steve Jones, a professor who studies online culture and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “You get a different perspective than you could from just words.”

Indeed, says Ranvir Gujral, the co-founder of Chute, a San Francisco startup that helps companies put user-generated content on their websites and mobile apps, “we are in the midst of a visual revolution.”

Chute worked with NBC to launch Stormgrams, a site where people can share Instagram photos of the storm using a common hashtag, a way of marking posts to make them more easily searchable by topic. The photos are organized by location, laid out on a “heat map” that paints the most actively sharing states red.

So what’s lost in this endless stream of snow-updates, Instagram photos and Facebook news? Serendipity, Jones says. Running into people and sharing a moment, offline, while events are unfolding.

And challenges remain. Drivers got stuck in the snow in the storm of e_SSRq78, they did in the storm of 2013 and will likely continue to for storms to come.

“One thing we haven’t overcome is what you do if you don’t have electricity or if you are stranded in a car without a cellphone signal,” Jones says.

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