Twitter Use During Toronto Ice Storm 2013

On December 21, 2013, Toronto was hit with a sever ice storm that resulted in the loss of power to over 300,000 customers. The city was crippled as Toronto Hydro crews rushed to restore power as quickly as they could, addressing essential locations, such as hospitals, first. As hydro employees worked feverishly to fix the damage caused by the storm, another storm was brewing online. Toronto residents took to social media, primarily Twitter, to gather information and communicate with others during the outage.

Toronto Hydro did their best to provide updates and communicate with their customers, but the sheer scale of the catastrophe made it near impossible to address everyone. Additionally, the size and impact of the ice storm made it difficult to provide any accurate updates on restoration efforts – which frustrated many customers. Nevertheless, as with any other outage, a group of affected users was spontaneously formed on Twitter.

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As we’ve seen in the past with large scale outages, Twitter users almost instantly began to follow corporate feeds in hopes of finding information. The less information that’s available, the more active the group of users become – saving search terms, creating hashtags (like #darkto), and voicing their frustrations. However, what I find to be the most interesting is how the users interact with each other in the group. In the absence of corporate communications during an outage – the affected users begin to update and inform each other. One user even went so far as to create a new Twitter account designed specifically to communicate any updates from the company, the media, or other Twitter users.

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A study conducted by Microsoft Learning and Psychster Inc. on Using Twitter to Reassure Users During a Site Outage revealed what most of us already know – sitting out is not an option. Companies need to play an active role on social media during an outage. If the company is absent, not only do users form their own group updates – they control the perception of the company. This is where opinions are formed – and if your company isn’t participating and steering the conversation in a favourable direction, then it’s likely your customers will turn on you.

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However, I feel as though the timing of the outage helped curve the perceptions of Toronto Hydro in a bit of a positive light. Many customers expressed their gratitude for the employees who came back from their holiday vacation to assist with the outage. Additionally, the timing almost “explained” why Toronto Hydro was a bit slow to correct the problem – several of it’s employees were taking vacation, so initially – it wasn’t “all hands on deck”. This may have balanced all the negative comments – giving users a sort of “neutral” feeling towards Toronto Hydro: they were mad that they’re power went out, but they were sympathetic to the crew members who had to cancel their vacation time.

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The study also revealed that frequent and accurate updates from the company (or a member of the company) reduced the number of calls to customer support. Having access to immediate information also improves the user’s experience, since they’re able to obtain the information they require without any additional effort. With the lack of updates from Toronto Hydro – it seems that several customers were attempting to call in, with little success. Because customers were not able to connect with Toronto Hydro via phone, email, or social media – they began to vent their frustrations on Twitter, fuelling an already raging fire.

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Overall, I feel as though Toronto Hydro could have been better prepared – especially since they recently went through an outage months before when the DVP flooded. However, taking into consideration the size of this storm and the number of customers impacted – they managed it the best that they good. I think that the festive spirit definitely helped Toronto Hydro. Hopefully they’ll be better prepared for the next outage!

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