In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, a close look at how we consume public tragedy online.
At 3:30 p.m. Monday, a reporter friend publishes a Twitter post from a newsroom in Manhattan: "BREAKING: Explosions at finish line of Boston Marathon."
A few minutes later on Facebook, a friend who lives in Boston posts to his newsfeed: "what the fuck."
In another few minutes, everything seems to be happening simultaneously—offers of help, well wishes, intermittent reports, and a growing number of photos and videos from the finish line start flooding Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and every website you're reading. The numbers of dead and wounded body counts are revised and re-revised, rumors of Boston officials turning off cell service to defend against "potential remote detonation" are spread, random people link to blood donation centers, and a relatively famous comedian writes a short Facebook blog post about how the good people in the world will always outnumber the "broken sociopaths."
Soon people begin arguing about what other people are posting—remain silent, don't remain silent, carry on in normalcy if you're not directly involved, or don't out of respect. We want rules, even when its obvious the medium offers none. All approaches have some decent ethical underpinning.
Many social media users are conscious that they are not just acting out in ambient solidarity with the wounded, but are engaged in the construction of a story.
An editor posts a Twitter message about a Washington Post reporter who ran the marathon and immediately co-authored a report for the paper in the hours after; people I have never met before link to a Google-sponsored person finder where users can either post information about an individual or search records to determine loved ones’ whereabouts; someone I met at a party two years ago reports via Facebook that she is home safe with her cat; a news service posts a picture of a man with bone protruding from a missing leg being rushed to an ambulance; and in New York, police cars pour into Times Square and form a line of defense in front of building entrances.
The Boston Marathon bombing moved through social media as a solar eclipse, dimming uses of it that were not genuine and productive. Told in a disruptive stream of nonstop dispatches—new facts, small and large revisions, notes from one person, video from another—traumatic events are transformed by social media into stories of reverent process for distant bystanders, expressions captured through an uncrossable distance, transmitted through a medium designed around the presumption that any distance is crossable.
Twitter, Facebook, Vine, and Instagram become utilities for our discomfort with being bystanders, channeling despondency into action, and encouraging users to become correspondents, witnesses, amplifiers, and conduits of information on behalf of those suffering. From a state of helplessness, we can now exercise at least a modicum of control. Information that would have been disseminated from a handful of central platforms in the past is broken into small pieces and left to us to distribute, which doesn’t necessarily improve conditions for those on the scene, but still offers some simulation of comfort for people watching from afar, suddenly conscious of their lack of control.
The sociologist Edmund Carpenter described news as "information regarded as suitable for public attention, even public control." Writing in the early 1970s, he observed how the Vietnam War "employed more people in packaging and distributing its news than in combat."
With 500 million Twitter accounts and 1 billion Facebook accounts, the number of people dedicated to packaging and distributing news event information has skyrocketed even while in Boston the number of people directly affected is dwarfed in comparison. And correspondingly, the available information has dramatically increased, offering such a volume of new data that it freezes one in place, trapped in a mistrustful hesitance that a fact might be untrue or misleading.
Many social media users are conscious that they are not just acting out in ambient solidarity with the wounded, but are engaged in the construction of a story. Even temporary belief in untruths become a part of the narrative, a document of both distant events and an instinctual apprehension toward the artifice of the medium people rely on to engage it.
Yet the creation of this informational superstructure is one of social media's most powerful aspects, an emotional shelter in times of uncontrollable tragedy. The violence of our daily lives does not have a narrative structure that welcomes empathetic participation. People without homes and food ask us for help on a daily basis and we are acculturated to ignore or mistrust them. Teenagers are attacked by the police and we instantly begin to equivocate: They might have been drug dealers or, by definition, criminals.
These counter-narratives create a distorting haze between us and the people within our physical reach whom we might form immediate empathetic bonds with. Unambiguous tragedies seem to temporarily free us of these counter-narratives; they are the rare instances where outward displays of selflessness, sharing, and love can be seen as apolitical, agendaless, and safe.
They allow us to forget that in the moments before that first troubling Twitter post appeared in my timeline or yours, there was some silent imposition on our empathy and care from which we had not yet been freed.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.