As I write, a massive snowstorm is bearing down on the Northeast, whipping up 50 m.p.h. winds and dumping as much as a foot and a half of snow on New York City. If you live in its path you should buy extra food, you should make sure you've got candles and flashlights, and you should fill up your tub with water.
What you shouldn't do is call the storm "Nemo." Please. It's not the storm's name; it's a marketing scheme: an irritating, inane attempt by the Weather Channel to hijack weather reporting and the communication of emergency information. It's stupid, flawed, and possibly even dangerous. And it's already working incredibly well.
In fact, if you didn't know better, you'd assume that Nemo was the winter storm's official government name, not the unimaginative appellation of a cable channel with overeager social media managers. It's being used by media outlets across the northeast—the Post, the Daily News, even this website—and by local government officials, including Mayor Bloomberg here in New York.
But winter storms and storm system don't get official names, for a variety of good reasons: they're unwieldy, uneven, often composed of more than one actual storm. It's hard to say where one ends and another begins; a single storm can be one of a number of different types, or a combination of types.
"Fuck that," we might imagine the Weather Channel's marketing bros yelling from their offices. Hurricanes, with their anthropomorphizing names, get so much traction. Why can't they do the same thing with winter storms?
"Well," someone small and boring pipes up, "cyclones, which are the kind of storm that gives rise to hurricanes, are meteorologically-specific events that are easily identifiable; last for a long time; and arise simultaneously with other, similar storms, necessitating individual identification. The names taken from lists compiled by the Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee of the World Meteorological Association, and used by news organizations and government agencies to spread awareness and streamline commun—"
"CHECK IT OUT," the marketing bros yell, displaying this graphic on their iPhones:
Yes: last year The Weather Channel—which owns Weather.com, Weather Underground, and a host of other weather-related sites—announced it would begin naming winter storms too. That is its official list of names, as packaged in its official, attractive graphic.
The truth is there is very little attempt being made to hide the fact that this is a money play. In case the inclusion of "Draco" and "Nemo" (just some Greek and Roman names, nothing to do with any recent children's movies, don't worry) and "Gandolf" (the "Bert Sampson" of fantasy names) didn't tip you off, the announcement itself makes it clear that this is about punching up the weather story: "A storm with a name takes on a personality all its own," writes Tom Niziol. Such "personality," he claims "adds to awareness."
Awareness! Of course, awareness. It's true that if everyone involved in risk and emergency communication—management agencies, local governments, and private news outlets—can agree on a name, it might help emphasize and direct storm news and information.
But it's not the Weather Channel's job to unilaterally decide what that name is, or which storms receive the name. The Weather Channel says it's naming "significant" winter storms—but what makes a storm significant?" "By setting their own standards and making their own categorizations of winter storms behind closed doors, away from peer review and scientific scrutiny," Digital Meteorologist's Nate Johnson wrote last year, "
they are jumping out and expecting the rest of the weather community to follow along. "Coordination and information sharing should improve between government organizations as well as the media, leading to less ambiguity and confusion when assessing big storms that affect multiple states." In other words, they're telling the NWS, local TV stations, and local officials that "we will name the storms, and the rest of you should speak our language or you'll be the one causing confusion."
Really, the Weather Channel claims only make sense once you understand that "awareness" of a storm means "awareness" of the Weather Channel. "In today's social media world, a name makes it much easier to reference in communication," the announcement claims. ("The fact is, Twitter needs a hashtag," a company spokesman told the Times yesterday. Fact-check: no.) A name also gives the Weather Channel a significant edge in Google search rankings, as Christopher Penn points out:
It's not a convention anyone else uses, and it doesn't measurably improve the forecasting.
What does it improve, then? TWC's SEO – by quite a lot. Go Google for "winter storm Nemo". Who owns the prime position? TWC, of course. But that also takes advantage of Google's rumored (but officially neither confirmed nor denied) co-citation algorithm, the one that says even if you don't link to TWC's page on the storm, Google will associate the terms TWC and winter storm Nemo together and give TWC a bump in rankings if enough credible sites mention them together.
The Weather Channel learned a long time ago that viewers don't punish it for overestimating the size or force of weather conditions; now, every storm that has a chance of becoming news is endlessly hyped on its sites and channel. As Caity Weaver showed this morning, the Weather Channel has more or less given up on level-headedness or calm authority in favor of headlines like "YOU MUST PREPARE" and bizarre social-media buttons ("SEE FRIENDS AT RISK," next to a Facebook icon).
This would be dangerous territory if the Weather Channel were, in fact, a news outlet. But it's not, and its decision to become the independent arbiter of a proprietary storm-naming system should make this clear. No matter its claims to altruistic "awareness"-raising the Weather Channel has no desire to perform the public services of a government agency or academic institution. It doesn't want to cover storms, it wants to own them. And every time you call this one "Nemo" you're helping them do it.
[image by Robert Kessler]