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Sandy knocks snark out of Twitter -- for a day

In the hours prior to the hurricane making landfall, Twitter was full of jokey tweets from people facing down the storm. But now that Sandy has hit, the mood has changed in a hurry.

As someone writing on the West Coast, it's easy to feel at once a bit detached about Hurricane Sandy and deeply concerned for friends and family -- and everyone else -- stuck in the path of that once-in-a-generation natural disaster bearing down on the East Coast.

But for those hunkering down in places like New York City, Sandy represents real personal consequences -- and it would be natural to assume that those who've spent days nervously waiting to see if the hurricane is for real aren't laughing about it now that they're in the thick of it.

According to Twitter user Liz Heron, Hurricane Sandy is already wreaking havoc in New York. Twitter user Liz Heron

Yet, a quick look at Twitter today reveals that at least as many people have been tweeting quips about the storm as have been expressing real worry. The real question, though, seemed to be: How might the mood change once Sandy hit land and anticipation was replaced by the reality of being in the middle of a major natural disaster that's actively wreaking havoc?

The storm-related jokes were easy to find earlier in the day on Twitter. Perhaps they were peoples' way of passing the time, or maybe they were a bit of a defense mechanism. "My fave moment of mayor/governor pressers is when they drop in 'I was on the phone with the President," quipped Twitter user Kelly Reeves. Or take this tweet from AllThingsD editor Mike Isaac, referring to the news that Apple iOS chief Scott Forstall and others are leaving in a reshuffling: "DUDE. NASDAQ is closed today and tomorrow, so no immediate after-hours drop in AAPL. BRILLIANT."

And perhaps the best of all: "Wow," wrote Twitter user Jonathan Wald. "@BuzzFeed @Gawker@HuffingtonPost are down. Holy trinity. If you're a celeb and plan on doing something stupid now is your chance."

But clearly, with the storm now having made landfall, and fierce winds and storm surges threatening life and property in several states, the humor has largely given way to more sober social-media assessment. One can only imagine that, as the winds picked up and people could finally see that the days of warnings were not just hype, as they realized that giant cranes were hanging precariously off the top of 1,000-foot-tall buildings, the general mood changed -- even among the chattering class.

Perhaps, in the hours leading up to the storm actually making landfall, there were only so many Web sites with interactive maps, NASA satellite imagery, or hoax Sandy photos people could post. Once the worst of the storm kicked in for real, however, there were more important things to report -- things like real damage to buildings, power being shut off, or even police precincts being surrounded by flooding.

This chart shows the average number of tweets per minute of the hashtag "#hurricanesandy" in the hours leading up to and the minutes after the storm made landfall. Topsy

Another impact that's clearly visible with the storm now on land -- and power outages spreading -- is that the volume of tweets from individuals in the region has dropped precipitously. According to Topsy, a company that generates Twitter analytics, tweets including the hashtag "#hurricanesandy" dropped from a peak of more than 1,600 per minute at around 7:10 p.m. ET tonight (about when the storm hit landfall) to about 260 tweets less than 20 minutes later. That's a reality that makes it harder to gauge people's moods as they begin to grapple with the actual effects of the storm and not simply speculation. And a reality that makes those of us outside the storm zone wonder if our friends and family are doing OK.