Look for the Helpers: On Social Media Swarms in Violent Tragedies

Look for the Helpers: On Social Media Swarms in Violent Tragedies

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.

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