Public, Publics, and Social Media: Ethnographic Observations on Forecasters Navigating Uncertainty Regarding Social Media

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Wednesday, 7 January 2015: 4:45 PM
226AB (Phoenix Convention Center - West and North Buildings)
Jack R. Friedman, Univ. of Oklahoma, Norman, OK; and C. Silva, H. Jenkins-Smith, and P. Spicer

During the last several years, social media has become part of operations in NWS Weather Forecasting Offices around the country. Offices have increasingly committed to maintaining a presence on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter in the hopes of being able to “reach” more people. While there has been enthusiastic encouragement to embrace social media on the part of the NWS, it is unclear what forecasters actually think about social media, how they use social media, who they think their audience is, and, especially, whether they believe the time and energy expended on maintaining a presence on social media is worth the effort. In addition, because social media provides a platform for two-way communication – a WFO does not only provide information via social media, but, also, can receive information from the public in the form of weather observations – it can challenge long-held practices involving the control of the flow of information about weather. All of these uncertainties become heightened during severe weather events when forecasters are both 1) most in need of receiving reports and 2) at greatest pains to ensure that misinformation is not passed to the public that could lead to loss of life and/or property.

While most forecasters have accepted the growing role of social media in their WFOs, lingering skepticism and uncertainty has limited the effectiveness of social media as a “new way to reach new audiences.” Drawing on almost two years of ethnographic research involving observations of WFO operations and semi-structured interviews conducted with 44 forecasters representing 11 different WFOs across the country, we will discuss how forecasters navigate skepticism and uncertainty regarding “publics.” Considering how “publics” are viewed as both consumers of weather information and in their growing role as providers of information through social media, we pay particular attention to how forecasters talked about their uncertainties in terms of reliability of reports and the inherent, perceived risks of “believing” social media.

Our broader research has revealed the value of “big data” streams of social media information for understanding what, when, and how people communicate before, during, and after severe weather events. It is equally important, then, to understand what barriers might be faced in attempting to implement social media data as a useful source of information for operational forecasters. Understanding forecaster culture, beliefs, and perceptions is a key, first-step for improving the integration of social media into everyday operations.