Social Media and Tragedy

Image via wcvb.com

It’s a sad state of affairs that it is no surprise when the news flashes with violent images and death on a daily basis, that acts of terrorism and mass death occur every few months, that phrases like “the new normal” are tritely used to describe life in this hyper-sensitive time of televised brutality, hate-mongering and fear. Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon was another reminder of the finite nature of human life, the unexplained way that occurrences happen, and that acts of violence can happen close to home.

It’s also no surprise, unfortunately, when reactions to said violent images, terrorism and death are broadcast on social media in ways that are predictable, crass and trite. This is not to discount what has happened; the loss of life is tragic and unjust. But it’s sad when a religious group of people has to fear the response every time a destructive act of rage is broadcast; when many pleaded that said religious people should not be grouped together with a minute minority that brought harm to several American; when blowhard, attention-seeking wastes of human life stir up prejudices for a few more minutes of press. The cycle starts anew when a disturbing, grisly news story hits the media, and it’s a matter of time before the racists name the usual suspects. As comedian Chris Rock once said, “that train’s never late!”

It’s natural for people to grieve when presented with horrific events that call their own mortality into question. The loss of life due to unexpected tragedy is sad, and we all have our ways of coping with that loss. But I wonder if the nature of social media, to connect with others, feeds off of that need for validation through socially acceptable ways to express that feeling of loss. Mere minutes after news broke of the bombing, my Facebook News Feed slowly populated with thoughts and hashtags praying for those harmed in the blast. JPEGs (varying in quality) honoring the fallen victims spread like a virus. A few hours later, an eloquent Facebook post by comedian Patton Oswalt was circulated en masse in link and (poorly made) JPEG form. A smattering of user avatars took on Boston themes.

Like the Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut shootings or the death of Roger Ebert, the ways we communicate our sense of loss have happened before, and the next tragedy will ensure that these patterns of behavior will happen again. And despite the varied shades of intelligence, education, culture, race, religion, and upbringing, human nature and American society’s connection to digital media means that we will feel the wild-swinging emotions that come with death, filtered through a social prism of self-expression that begs for acceptance and affirmation from peers–online and offline.

I realize in typing this that I might come across as an unfeeling or cynical robot, an automaton that looks down on those mystifying “emotions” that “humans” emote with their fleshy arms, limbs and brain holders. This is partly true; I’m just a love machine with human skin, and I don’t work for nobody but the collective “you.” Like everyone else (aside from unfeeling sociopaths), I’m trying to make sense of mortality, especially when these adverse things happen far away but are brought to the collective forefront by technology and empathy. There is a need to communicate those feelings of loss, but I hate thinking that there are opportunists that use such moments of emotional frailty to get a few website hits or a Liked Facebook picture. As social media is the prime way for people to reach out to each other nowadays, our Facebook and Twitter accounts are our microphones to the rest of the world.

So are we communicating what we really feel, are we expressing a culturally sanctioned version of that grief, or a strange hybrid of the chaos that comes from being knocked off-balance by the fleeting nature that is life through pics and platitudes? God, who knows. But I do know that continually burying the innocent is as banal as the racists that see a virtual soapbox in breaking news, or those that flash a bitmap for acceptance with no real emotional connection.

I hope that these grim reminders of the primal aspects of mankind become less frequent. I also hope that we let our real feelings dictate how we act on social media, but like the wish for world peace, this may be a pipe dream. But maybe I should be quiet and not care about what people do. I hope that I don’t have to ponder this often.

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