By Kurt Abrahamson, CEO, ShareThis

When Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard on October 29, millions of people were without power within hours. With limited means of contacting family and friends, and minimal cell phone service, those affected by one of the largest hurricanes on record were left struggling to find ways to communicate with the rest of the nation. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were nonexistent. But the social web of 2012 is a vastly different place than it was only a few years ago and the ability to share content online, as was demonstrated during Superstorm Sandy, is increasingly becoming the go-to means of communicating when communication isn’t easy.

In New York and New Jersey, among the areas hit hardest by the superstorm, city governments turned to Twitter and Facebook to disseminate safety precautions, weather updates, shelter opportunities for those in need and anything else its citizens might need to know. The mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, even used Twitter to invite Sandy victims who were seeking shelter, relief, or just a power outlet to charge their phone, into his home. Similarly, other fortunate New Yorkers who did have power during the storm used those channels to reach out to friends and family who were in need.

Between October 27, as Sandy was fast-approaching the East Coast, and November 1, more than 20 million tweets with the words “hurricane” and “sandy” were sent out. On October 29, the day Sandy made landfall, “Sandy” accounted for 20 percent of all Internet search queries, and from October 27-30 tweets from the Red Cross increased 30-fold. People weren’t just tweeting about their own personal experience with the storm, but reading relevant articles as well in order to gather information about what was coming, or what friends and loved ones may be going through from afar. According to data from ShareThis, more than 6.6 million articles about Sandy were shared between October 25 and November 8.

Sandy knocked down the servers for major websites including Huffington Post, Gawker and Buzzfeed. But that didn’t stop them from posting storm updates on their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. CNN reported that Sandy was this year’s second-most talked about topic on Facebook, after the Super Bowl, recording a score of 8.34 on Facebook’s “Talk Meter” at its peak. For comparison, the first presidential debate weighed in at a meager 8.18.

It wasn’t just Twitter and Facebook that dominated the social sharing landscape. Instagram, the photo-sharing app bought by Facebook earlier this year for $1 billion, saw 10 photos with the hashtag #sandy posted per second at its peak, and more than 300,000 photos with the same hashtag had been shared by noon on October 30. Developers from The New York Times and Facebook even collaborated to created Instacane, a site featuring Instagram images solely of Sandy.

So what’s all this mean? It all comes back to the power of sharing. Social sharing metrics have trended upwards year-by-year, as more and more people use the social web to connect, share and inform others. But this trend is most obvious and revealing during times of crisis. It’s abundantly clear how reliant our generation is on the ability to share content with one another. The social web, and the networks within it, are not just a means to connect and entertain, but rather have true value when it comes to keeping us informed, in real time. It’s no longer the publishers and advertisers that need to take note of this changing consumer behavior, but it’s the city officials, governments, disaster relief organizations, and more. Judging by #Sandy, we’re doing a pretty great job. Let it be a study of how effective these channels can be and how we can utilize them to provide true value unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Image by azaphoto via Shutterstock.

Kurt Abrahamson is the CEO of ShareThis. Prior to joining the company, Kurt served as CEO of SocialMedia.com, a leader in online display advertising, which was acquired by LivingSocial. Before SocialMedia.com, Kurt spent several years at Google, where he managed the direct sales channel for publishers and helped lead the global launch of Google AdSense as Director of the Content Media Group. Abrahamson also served as the Director of Global Sales & Operations Strategy and as Director of Sales Operations for North America. Before joining Google, Kurt served as Chief Operating Officer of Jupiter Communications and as President of Jupiter Media Metrix, where he helped establish Jupiter as one of the leading Internet research organizations. Kurt received his Bachelor of Science in communications from Cornell, and a Master’s degree in public policy from Harvard.