In the second instalment of her new weekly column, Rituals, Kate Carraway looks at how the increasingly popular David Leonard Weather Service hashtag (#dlws) has transformed idle observations about the sun, wind and rain into an effective showcase of Twitter’s hyper-local, crowd-sourcing potential.
Today is conveniently and cinematically both the first day of school and the first real day of fall. It’s tights-and-jackets-weather, an appropriately crisp occasion of yearly renewal. (The first Tuesday after Labour Day is always a more meaningful beginning to a new year, still hot or otherwise, than the mid-winter hangover that is supposed to signify the real “first” of something.) And I know all that despite the under-covers cuddle-huddle I’ve been in today, on holiday, hours away from Toronto. This morning, I looked at the official weather forecast (“Cloudy; high of 21 degrees, low of 16”), but I also read reports of “A cool, fresh morning. Blue sky streaked with citrus clouds in Toronto’s east end. #dlws.” And “Grey and chilly this morning. Flinty. #DLWS.” And “The kids trudging into the elementary school near my house had faces that matched the bleakness of this sky. #dlws.”
What good is a report saying it’s going to be “21” to someone without much facility for numbers? What good is “21” when the numbers are provided without context? What I’d rather hear is “Sweater weather. Fall is my favourite. #dlws.”
These real-weather descriptions are, of course, tweets, and part of the David Leonard Weather Service, which its eponymous proprietor explains—and he finds himself explaining often—as “a network of correspondents posting the weather they see right now. Real-time, crowd-sourced weather.“ Leonard, who lives in Toronto with his wife, Teva Harrison, says it started “as a private joke between me and me. It was a brutal weekend night in January 2010, and coming out of a bar/club/show—I don’t remember which, but it was after last call—I tweeted about it as the David Leonard Weather Service, with the #dlws tag: ‘The David Leonard Weather Service has issued an extreme cold alert. My contacts havwe [sic] frozen to my eyes. #DLWS.’ Note the customary typo.”
Leonard—@davidpleonard on Twitter and the manager of events at The Walrus Foundation—has been curating, compiling or RTing his own and his “correspondents’” (really, anyone on Twitter who catches on to the hashtag and its purpose) 140-character weather reports since then. The “service,” which is as much collective fun as it is strictly functional, is more often known as #dlws, and is a best-case-scenario of the potential for hyper-local citizen “reporting,” the hashtag function (that’s the “#” phrase, which groups tweets together by theme) and the second-by-second update habits of its users, particularly users inclined to report on what the sky, sun, wind and rain is doing. There are photos, too, but what is most essential about the dlws is how the weather is reported—emotionally, viscerally, synesthetically—as it happens.
A demonstration: Leonard’s brother is, ironically, a forecaster with Environment Canada; recently, while they both watched a storm moving east, David tracked the #dlws, while his brother watched his “fancy professional weather tools.” They bet on when the storm would arrive at his brother’s eastern Ontario house, and “the dlws was far more accurate, because the posts stretched from Kitchener-Waterloo to Pickering.” Leonard calls it “a very cool testament.”
In addition to offering better results of who will be rained on and when, the dlws gets closer to what we actually do when we talk about the weather, which is, talk about one of the few collective experiences that affects and is understood by everyone. (Other than the broadest of popular culture, weather is the only subject to do so, and is as pointless as it is essential.) Talking about the weather is a ritual meant to bind and bond; talking about the weather as it seems and as it feels can do all of that even better. A post I made and tagged #dlws that read “Washed-out summer camp skies and huge wind on Avenue heading straight to Union. Wind could be result of speeding cab” generated multiple @ replies and RTs from people who knew just what I meant, and who just got the objective-correlative of “summer camp skies” and, probably, had some better sense of what the morning would feel like when they ventured outside. Another tweet, one of Leonard’s favourites, just read “Petrichor,” which means “the smell of rain.” Numerical temperature readings are never so poetic.
The dlws is gaining reach, which was especially apparent during the tornado that ravaged Goderich, Ontario in August, when tweets marked with “#dlws” occupied the majority of my feed for hours. “It’s fun to talk about the weather in real terms using hot-chocolate references and metaphors,” says Leonard. He RTs the dlws posts from his own account—“there actually is a DLWS account, but it stands for Diskless Workstations”—but the initialism’s hashtag has been thoroughly re-appropriated. “It can be tough to keep up with the RTs,” Leonard says. “I do feel some responsibility to it, though. If my phone is dead or I’m at an event where I can’t tweet for some reason, I feel a pang.”
Leonard adds: “I always love when the weather reports tie into whatever other topics people are talking about. For instance, during elections, there’s always a lot of fodder for blended tweets comparing the weather to a particular politician’s recent gaffe or success. The same with award shows, or big, public events.”
In terms of the shared, collective experience, or experiences, this accidental phenomenon could emerge as one of the most relevant. Or, as one might say about the weather, “Cool.”