If online news stories were translated into weather events, nude selfie leaks might constitute a small gale, while the Great Dane who ate 43 socks would likely amount to a ticklish breeze. For about a week, residents of the English seaside town of Folkestone, England, have been witnessing something like that play out on five peculiar weather vanes installed throughout the city.
Last winter, interactive design duo Cézanne Charles and John Marshall (collectively rootoftwo) visited Folkestone ahead of its annual triennial with the idea to embed five weather vanes that responded to fears stirred up on the Internet. To pick up scary stories, the weathervane (or in this case, “Whithervane”) software would scan Reuters articles using terrorism-related keywords that the Department of Homeland Security monitors on social media feeds (read the full list here), then swing the vanes in the opposite direction of the news event. The Whithervane prototypes, whittled in workshops with local Folkestonians, took the form of headless chickens.
But Folkestone locals had an opportunity to program more regional concerns into the Whithervanes as well. Through scanning local headlines and listening to villagers in the workshop series, Charles and Marshall discovered that immigration, the influx of young creatives in the town, and even dog poop stories lit a fire in certain communities. They added some of those keywords to the software and weighted them, too, so that individual whithervanes could be responsive to neighborhood fears based on where they were placed.
“There are a lot of pressing social issues happening in the city, all underneath this veneer of a very English seaside town,” says Charles. “There were a lot of swirling forces, much like weather patterns, that were beginning to change the nature of the town, change the demography of the town, how it’s able to perceive itself.”
Depending on how fearsome the software rates the story, the chickens light up on a scale from green to red, the same color-coded threat levels of the Homeland Security National Advisory System. But Folkestone residents and Internet users can also control how wildly the chickens oscillate and light up. Tweeting #keepcalm at the chickens keeps their threat levels low, while tweeting #skyfalling raises the alarm.
“When we started this project a few years ago, we were aware of apocanoia–how every other news story seemed to be about the end of the world as we know it,” Marshall says. “We now have such an ability to pay attention to the news that reinforces our worldview, if we so choose.”
Charles and Marshall say that in the first few days of the installation, lots of people tweeted #skyfalling for the fun of it, but lately, they’ve noticed that the trend has swung in the other direction. Now, more than ever, people are advocating for caution and prudence when reading the news, especially after a month of hysteria over the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa.
Perhaps a swinging headless chicken is just the trick to get people to think carefully about different types of information that come their way, the designers suggest. To take the project to the next level, they’d like to make Whithervanes open source, or replicate the idea in other communities.
“[The Whithervane] kind of reclaims an object that’s lost its original purpose,” Charles says. “It can act as an attempt at reading what is ephemeral.”