As a "polar vortex" has pushed much of North America into hysterics over wind chill and frozen extremities, many Canadians have simply sighed; this is old hat for us. What might be new about this recent chill, however, is the novelty of "frost quakes"– those miniature seismic events that result from the expansion of ice during a sudden cooldown.
Suddenly cryoseisms, as frost quakes are more properly known, are everywhere – on the news, on Reddit and all over social media. Yet, in a country famously known for its snow, hockey and frigid temperatures, how could it be that we're just now discovering what at least seems like a new winter phenomenon?
I'm partial to one theory that's been floated: That, at least in one sense anyway, frost quakes didn't exist before Twitter.
"Objectively" of course, cryoseisms clearly occurred before the advent of the Internet. Yet, happenings that are either rare or too insignificant to warrant a mention on the news tend to remain unnamed and unspoken. Prior to the Web, you might have felt a shake in the middle of one night, but when you asked at work or at school the next day, you'd get only puzzled looks – and thus the phenomenon would get tucked into that little file of unexplained mysteries we all carry around.
But when hundreds or thousands of people can take to Twitter or Facebook and ask "did anyone else hear that last night?" the situation changes. The odd or the obscure events of day-to-day life get amplified and passed around. Distance shrinks, and your social reach expands. And when we can confirm our odd experiences with others, we can give them a name and make them part of our collective knowledge.
It's a dimension of social media that extends far beyond frost quakes. Years ago, writer Clive Thompson said that one of the things Twitter did best was to create "ambient intimacy" – a casual awareness of the ins and outs of others' lives. Today, now that social media is mainstream in many parts of the world, that awareness may be less intimate, but is perhaps more comprehensive. Being able to peek into the lives of so many, we get a bird's-eye view into everything ranging from people's traditions during different holidays to weird ideas about food to odd medical quirks. It's as if we are all researchers, able to scan the data of our own and others' social circles.
The web and social media act as great fishing nets for the weird and the rare, allowing us to find our own oddities and idiosyncrasies reflected back at us. It's perhaps that aspect of the Internet that has fostered a culture around cult movies and TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Community or even My Little Pony. Similarly, odd phenomena, like the feeling that street lights go out when you pass by, get either support or debunking online. Instead of wondering if one is the only person who thinks or experiences a certain thing, the Web allows us to easily find others thinking or going through the same thing.
Social media tends to face two main criticisms: Firstly, that the emphasis on self-expression has a bias for narcissists and attention-seekers; and secondly, that because it has been created by mostly by Californian free-market boosters, it lends itself to a culture of branding and commodification. There is undoubtedly something to both of those points. But the frost quake example also points out that social media does something else too: it produces a space for public conversation that can bring to light that which remained obscured or hidden before. If the diary took the interior processes of the mind and put them outside the body, then social media takes those ideas and makes them public and findable, sometimes in a very useful way.
Like any mass cultural phenomenon, social media has its ups and downs. But it's at least plausible that had it not been for our online chattering, many would still be futilely wondering what has been shaking their homes this winter. And for that, it seems, we should be grateful for an online place to do that which is most Canadian: complain about the weather.